Japan’s Diplomacy with Iran and Syria during the U.S. Hostage Crisis in Lebanon

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TWA hostages wave upon returning to the United States in 1985

In the summer of 1985, the Japanese Government attempted to mediate the release of American hostages taken during the hijacking of Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 847 by dispatching a special enjoy to Iran and Syria.

On June 14, 1985, the Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 847 en route from Cairo to San Diego was hijacked by two Lebanese men, one of whom was an alleged member of the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah. After the plane diverted to Algiers and then Beirut, seven U.S. passengers were taken hostage and placed in an unidentified Shia prison in the Lebanese capital. The incident took place at the height of the Lebanese Civil War and was part of the broader Lebanese hostage crisis between 1982 to 1991, where over 100 hostages (mostly Americans and Western Europeans) were taken by Hezbollah members

Following the hijacking, in a phone-call exchange between US President Ronald Reagan and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Nakasone inquired whether Japan could help rescue the seven hostages in Lebanon by mediating with Hezbollah’s allies in Syria and Iran.

Japan was in a more credible position than the United States to negotiate with the Syrians and Iranians on this matter. Just prior to the Reagan-Nakasone phone call, Japan’s Foreign Minister Abe Shintaro had visited Damascus to meet with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Foreign Minister Shara. Shara subsequently visited Japan for a further exchange on bilateral relations between the two countries. Likewise, Iran’s Majlis (Parliament) Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had recently visited Japan and met with Prime Minister Nakasone.

Reagan accepted Nakasone’s offer, and so began Japan’s behind-the-scenes efforts to rescue the American hostages from Lebanon.

Japan’s diplomacy with Syria, Iran, and the United States to free the TWA Flight 847 hostages is highlighted in a new collection on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive. The collection – “Japan and the U.S. Hostage Crisis in Lebanon” – features more than 80 translated documents declassified by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017, including letters exchanged between the US and Japan, the records of meetings between Japanese and Iranian and Syrian officials, and internal Foreign Ministry documents.

After the Reagan-Nakasone call, Foreign Minister Abe Shintaro dispatched Yoshihiro Nakayama, a former ambassador to France, as a special envoy to Syria and Iran in summer 1985. On August 6, Nakayama arrived in Tehran, where he met with Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati, and Rafsanjani.

During the discussions, Rafsanjani raised his suspicions that the Lebanese hostage crisis was a “stratagem” by the United States in order to “achieve some aim in Lebanon” and “form domestic unity,” claiming the US had not taken any active measures to save the hostages. Furthermore, Rafsanjani demanded that the US keep its promise to secure the release of 300 Shi’ite Lebanese prisoners still held in Israel (several hundred Lebanese prisoners had already been let go as part of a tacit exchange for the release of other hostages from TWA flight 847).

On August 10, Nakayama reached Damascus. His interactions with officials in Syria – including with Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and President Hafez al-Assad – were much more cordial than in Iran. The Syrian leadership happily accepted Nakayama’s offers of economic and technological cooperation as well as cultural exchanges. Namely, Nakayama offered Japanese assistance for Syria’s Substation Project and constructions of power plants via ODA loans and technological cooperation. Assad reassured Nakayama that Syria was doing its utmost to secure the release of the American hostages held in Lebanon, though he acknowledged that he did not actually know the precise whereabouts of the seven hostages and was limited in his ability to assist in the matter.

According to Nakayama’s letter sent to President Assad and Foreign Minister Shara on September 12, 1985, Israel released the Lebanese prisoners partly out of consideration of the request from Japan and Foreign Minister Abe, but unconnected to the hijacking. Nevertheless, this gesture improved the environment for hostage negotiations.

Following the prisoner release, Nakayama made a second visit to Syria in September as part of a Japan-Syria Friendship and Goodwill Mission, but this visit proved to be less successful than his first visit. Eventually, the US hostages in Lebanon were let go, but the extent to which Japan’s negotiations with Syria and Iran mattered to the release is unknown.

In the aftermath of Japan’s attempts to mediate the release of the US hostages, the issue turned into a domestic political scandal for Prime Minister Nakasone. Four Japanese political parties – the Socialist, Communist, the Komeito, and Democratic Socialist parties – criticized Nakasone for his efforts to secure the release American hostages, arguing that this type of behavior – a “follow US diplomacy” policy – would adversely impact Japan’s credibility in the Middle East. Given that Japan relied heavily on oil imports from the Middle East, the opposition parties argued that a non-independent Japanese foreign policy in the region put their country at political and economic risk. Furthermore, due to the recently exposed Iran-Contra affair, the Japanese opposition worried that Japan could be drawn into an illegal arms trade with Iran.

Nakasone responded to his critics by claiming that Japan did not take orders from Washington and that Japan’s decision to use diplomacy with Syria and Iran to save the American hostages from Lebanon was his decision alone. President Reagan, according to Nakasone, simply called to convey his gratitude to Japan once Nakasone expressed a willingness to mediate on behalf of the US.

Nevertheless, the available documentary evidence on this point – whether there was a preemptive request by Reagan seeking help with the hostage crisis or whether it was a gesture of goodwill from Nakasone – is contradictory.

On one hand, a telegram from the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Matsunaga Nobuo, that summarizes a meeting held with Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, suggests it was a Japanese initiative. According to the cable, “the Prime Minister [Nakasone] said…that the Government of Japan would be happy to be of service if there were anything it could do in regard to rescuing the hostages. In reply, President Reagan requested that they please do so.”

On the other hand, another telegram from the Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau within the Japanese Foreign Ministry states that “there has been a high-level request from the US side, from President Reagan down, for our side’s cooperation, including that of Prime Minister Nakasone, in regard to the problem of the release of the seven American hostages who remain in Lebanon.”

Given the ambiguity of the evidence declassified by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the political implications of Japan’s role are unclear. In any case, Japan’s efforts to use its diplomatic leverage to save US hostages in Lebanon highlights both Japan’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs in the 1980s as well as the strength of US-Japan relations during the Nakasone-Reagan era at the end of the Cold War.

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