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Thursday / August 11
HomeAsiaWhy Abe’s US-Iran Mediation Failed

Why Abe’s US-Iran Mediation Failed

By Pouyan Kimiayjan

Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on a diplomatic mission to mediate escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. This was the first state visit from a Japanese leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and marked a new chapter in Tokyo-Tehran relations. Conveniently, Abe enjoys friendly relations with both President Trump and the Iranian leadership. On the one hand, Japan’s economy and security is heavily dependent on its relationship with the United States. On the other hand, Japan is a major importer of oil from Iran and the Persian Gulf countries and has a strategic interest in preventing conflict in the region. Aware of Japan’s interest in US-Iran dialogue, President Trump requested of the Japanese leadership to signal to the Iranians that the United States is ready for dialogue.

On a rhetorical level, this reflected a change in approach. The escalating war of words between Tehran and Washington was detrimental to Trump’s election promise to end wars in the Middle East and threatened his re-election in 2020. After a year of exercising strategic patience toward the re-imposition of US unilateral sanctions, threats, and repeated Israeli attacks on its forces in Syria, Iran had begun pushing back against US interests in the region. Instead of forcing the Iranians to capitulate, Trump’s maximum pressure policy has only inflamed regional tensions and effectively failed to force Iran to accept Pompeo’s 12 demands. Consequently, President Trump now plans to try the US approach to North Korea: signal interest for direct talks after a period of intentionally escalating tensions and imposing sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo scaled back his 12 demands, requested talks without preconditions, and only demanded of Iran to refrain from making nuclear weapons. In addition, American news-media circulated speculations about the potential removal of John Bolton, Trump’s ultra Iran-hawk National Security Advisor, from the administration. There was also a sense of optimism in Tehran. In an interview with Iranian state TV, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign policy advisor to Iran’s powerful parliament speaker Ali Larijani, stated that Iran had expected the Trump administration to offer a 6-months sanctions waiver to kickstart direct talks.

Trump’s Miscalculation

However, prior to Abe’s arrival in Tehran, in an apparent attempt to showcase strength prior to a diplomatic opening, the US imposed sanctions on Iranian petrochemicals. These sanctions were most likely crafted by Trump’s hawkish advisors, while the US President assumed that Iran would write-off these sanctions as symbolic and accept Abe’s plea for mediation.

Thuswise, Trump’s gamble didn’t pay off. Following Abe’s arrival in Tehran, In a televised meeting between the Japanese and the Iranian leadership, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated that “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in the future.” The Supreme Leader specifically pointed to the recent sanctions on Iranian petrochemicals, hence arguing why the US cannot be trusted for any future negotiations. Although Ayatollah Khamenei signaled that he would exchange views on negotiations with Abe, and not with President Trump, one could assume that the responsibility for direct talks rests with President Rouhani and his team of diplomats. Nonetheless, President Rouhani had also informed Abe that in order to engage in constructive talks, the US had to unilaterally lift sanctions. Tehran’s message was clear: the US lost credibility when it withdrew from the JCPOA. In order to start negotiations, the sanctions have to be lifted prior to any new negotiations between the two countries.

According to the leadership in Tehran, any capitulation to talks under pressure will signal to the Americans that withdrawing from a multilateral agreement with Iran have had little consequence and sanctions can always be utilized to gain leverage over the country. Furthermore, Iran’s decision to reject talks with the Trump administration was also partly informed by recent US-North Korea negotiations. While the exchange of letters resulted in two photo-ops between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the Trump administration has yet to lift its sanctions against the North Korean regime.

The Lost Diplomatic Opportunity

Regardless of Abe’s failed attempt to mediate tensions, there still existed a narrow window for diplomacy. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent offer of prisoners-exchange and the subsequent release of US resident Nizar Zakka perhaps were designed to reflect Iran’s willingness to show goodwill in exchange for American goodwill. In Washington, in spite of Pompeo’s hawkish response to the oil tanker attacks, President Trump had urged his staff to soften their rhetoric and said that the attack was a “very minor” incident. With little appetite for direct conflict, the two countries had so far avoided dangerous miscalculations. In one cabinet meeting, President Rouhani stated that Trump has privately acknowledged the defeat of his Iran policy and blamed John Bolton for the rising tensions.

However, the shutdown of a US spy drone over the Persian Gulf brought the two countries ever closer to direct conflict and thus halted all diplomatic efforts. The US alleged that the drone was in international waters, while Iran asserted that the drone had entered Iranian territorial waters. President Trump aborted a planned military strike on three Iranian targets and instead imposed symbolic yet unprecedented sanctions against Iran’s Supreme Leader, IRGC commanders, and further threatened to sanction Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif.

In response, Iran announced that the path towards a diplomatic solution has been closed. These sanctions demonstrated that the US is out of options. Iran’s entire economy is already under sanctions and individual sanctions on Iranian leaders will have little impact on the country. Those who designed these latest round of sanctions understood the serious implications of this decision for US-Iran relations and intended to prevent a diplomatic opening.

New Round of Escalation

Moreover, tensions will most likely worsen as Iran has announced that it’s increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and in the next phase will enhance its uranium enrichment levels as well. This calculated partial withdrawal has been conducted based on provisions of the nuclear deal in order to prevent the other signatories from invoking the “snapback” provisions in the UN Security Council. The Europeans have threatened to re-impose sanctions if Iran leaves the agreement, while having failed to accommodate Iran’s economic demands.

Recent reports have revealed that Europe has opened a multi-million euro credit line, in an attempt to ease trade between Iran and the EU. However, the credit-line will most likely fail to make a major impact on the Iranian economy. From Iran’s standpoint, Europe has been reluctant to pay a price in standing up to US unilateralism. Henceforth, unless such last-minute measures address the broader obstacles surrounding Iran-EU trade, Iran is expected to move forward to the next phase in its planned partial withdrawal. For Europe, time is running out and the unraveling of the JCPOA has begun.

Iran’s New Roadmap

Meanwhile, the decision to partially withdraw from the JCPOA demonstrates that Iran wants to resolve the nuclear crisis prior to the 2020 US presidential election and intends to directly confront the United States itself, viewing Europe as an obsolete player. After all, there is no guarantee that Trump will lose his presidency in 2020. To that end, in addition to increasing its enrichment capability, Iran seems to have shifted its policy from strategic patience to active resistance.

Iran’s active resistance strategy is based on precedent. Amid the Obama-led multilateral sanctions against its nuclear program, Iran responded by increasing its enrichment capacity to 20%, while increasing the number of centrifuges to approximately 19,000. The country also built a heavy water reactor, capable of producing plutonium. From an Iranian perspective, these measures compelled the Obama administration to abandon its zero-enrichment policy and reach out to Iran through the Oman backchannel. Iran now intends to apply the same strategy in confronting the Trump administration. For Iran the end goal is to force Trump to choose between constructive dialogue or direct conflict.

Given the high cost of any direct conflict and Trump’s anti-war inclinations, there still exists an off-ramp for this administration to let go of its hawkish elements, suspend the sanctions, and engage in serious negotiations. The path to diplomacy still remains open.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author.

Photo Source: 首相官邸ホームページ [CC BY 4.0]

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor