Japan, a country with no oil of its own, is facing an extraordinary difficult decision: Shoul it join the West in imposing economic sanctions on Iran? Philip Habib, former undersecretary of state, is here in Japan as part of the United States effort to obtain concerted action by all the industrialized democracies against both Iran and the Soviet Union.
Washington wants Japan to take part in the proposed economic sanctions designed to force the freeing of american hostages held by militant students at the american Embassy in Tehran, Iran. The Carter administration is also pushing for an "appropriate response to the naked unjustified Soviet intervention in Afghanistan."
On both issues Japanese officials have said they are prepared to line up with the United States and Western Europe. Depputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher is currently in Europe on a mission paralleling that of Mr. Habib.
But Japan, with no oil and inadequate coal resources of its own, is more vulnerable to an oil cutoff than most major West European nations.
Perhaps in an effort to rub in this vulnerability, Iranian Oil Minister Ali Akbar Moinfar summoned Japanese Ambassador Tsutomu wada Jan. 16 and said he would halt oil exports to Japan if it went along with the US request for sanctions. He also told a press conference the same day that any country participating in sanctions against Iran would be deprived of oil and that Iran was prepared to cut its overall production in half -- down to only 1.5 million barrels a day.
Ironically, Mr. Moinfar is one of the few Iranians in a high position to have studied in Japan. He speaks Japanese. He is also a member of Iran's Revolutionary council. He told Mr. Wada that he had managed to increase Japan's share of Iranian oil exports by 15 percent in an agreement just signed by 12 Japanese oil companies and the Iranian national oil company, while reducing the share of West European oil giants British Petro leum and Shell to one-quarter of their former purchases.
But, he said, Iranian oil exports to Japan would be entirely halted if Japan goes along with sanctions. Mr. Moinfar also asked for the rapid resumption of construction on the petrochemical complex that Mitsui and other Japanese companies have been building in cooperation with the Iranian government at Bandar Khomeini. Construction was halted soon after the revolution that toppled the Shah last year, when the project was 85 percent complete.
The Japanese are entitled to purchase 530,000 barrels of oil per day -- approximately 10 percent of this country's daily needs at an average price of $ 30 per barrel under the new agreement. (Last year the Japanese got 460,000 barrels per day from Iran.)
Japan currently has more than 100 days reserves of oil and could withstand a cutoff of IRanian oil exports for some time. The immediate reaction of Foreign Ministry officials here to the Iranian Oil Minister's threat was that it would not deter them from going along with whatever joint action the Western industrialized democracies decide to take.
But the Japanese would like, if possible, to have Mitsui's petrochemical project exempted from the sanctions -- on the grounds that this is not a new project, that it is nearly complete, and that it is a project on which Japan had pledged national cooperation to Iran.
On Afghanistan, the Japanese wish to see what kind of action West European countries will show themselves willing to agree to. Here again the Japanese say they are prepared to fulfill their responsibility as a member of the advanced industrialized democracies. But there is no inclination to take initiative or to run ahead of the pack.
Japan's final decisions on Iran and on Afghanistan will have to await Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira's return from visits to Australia (Jan. 15 to 17) and New Zealand (Jan. 18 and 19). Mr. Ohira is promoting the concept of a community of Pacific-basin countries, with his eye fixed particularly keenly on Australia as a stable supplier of resources (coal, iron, uranium).