Photo/Illutration Defense Minister Taro Kono on Jan. 9 observes a simulated exercise for dispatching Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East. (Provided by the Defense Ministry)

Will the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces in accordance with a formalized policy help ease tensions in the Middle East when the regional situation is undergoing significant changes?

The government should suspend the plan and reconsider whether the deployment is necessary.

The U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani, a leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Iraq triggered Tehran’s retaliatory missile attacks on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.

As U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to avoid further attacks against Iran, the nightmare scenario has been averted, at least for the time being.

But Trump has promised to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, raising the possibility of the confrontation between the two countries escalating further.

There are also concerns that pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq and Syria may attack facilities related to the U.S. forces. The possibility of military conflict remains.

At the end of last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet formally decided to dispatch a Maritime SDF destroyer and patrol aircraft to the Middle East without substantive debate at the Diet. There is no doubt that the regional situation has since changed dramatically.

Despite the changes, the government has repeatedly said the deployment will proceed as planned, offering no explanations about how it assesses and prepares for the new risks.

Defense Minister Taro Kono said on Jan. 9 that armed conflict is not expected between the United States and Iran.

Does the Japanese government believe that the SDF will not face serious danger in the Middle East because its mission will not cover the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf?

Speaking in a TV news program on Jan. 6, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also said Iran “has shown understanding” for the planned SDF mission and that he has no safety concerns. But this seems to be an optimistic assessment about the situation.

To avoid undermining Japan’s friendly relationship with Iran, the government has decided to keep the Japanese mission independent of a U.S.-led international coalition to protect ships in the region. But Japan is a U.S. ally, and there is no guarantee that growing hostility toward Washington will not be directed at Japan.

In his statement, Trump said he plans to ask the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “to become much more involved in the Middle East process.”

Now that Japan has new national security legislation in place, a Japanese destroyer in the region might be requested by the United States to provide some form of cooperation or support.

Dispatching the SDF to the Middle East is not what Japan, which depends on the region for most of the oil it consumes, should do now.

Instead, Tokyo should capitalize on its friendly ties with Tehran to make diplomatic efforts to ensure effective communications among countries involved. That would be the best way for Japan to contribute to promoting stability in the region.

On Jan. 9, Abe praised the Trump administration’s “self-restraint” in responding to Iran’s retaliatory attack and pledged to make all possible diplomatic efforts to help calm the situation.

If Abe embarks on visits to three Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia at the end of this week as planned, he should use the tour to show the international community Japan’s intention to urge both the United States and Iran to make further efforts to de-escalate the situation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 10