Japan has reacted with shock to reports that post-embargo supplies of Iranian oil had been delivered to American ports. Washington officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) were admitting Iranian oil had arrived at American berths as late as Jan. 20
According to Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, considerable embarrassment accompanied the information out of Washington.
Washington's red-faced response was not surprising. Last December, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had claimed the Japanese were insensitive for chasing high-priced Iranian oil when America was calling for sanctions, especially from its friends.
In explaining the late deliveries, DOE officials pointed out that the 1980 shipments from Iran had nothing to do with "new" orders.
All of it, the DOE rushed to explain, was ordered before the Nov. 12 embargo. The DOE gave two reasons for the delay:
1. Deliveries from the Persian Gulf took as long as 40 or 50 days because the oil had to be transferred into smaller vessels for a final run to various American ports. (Officials in Tokyo say they are not certain, but believe these transfers took place in the Caribbean.)
2. the deliveries were also affected by strikes at American ports. By the time those strikes lifted, Iranian oil was being piped ashore as late as January 1980.
Apparently Foreign Ministry officials have checked the 40-50 day delivery period. They appear to be accepting this explanation. Nevertheless one official, asked whether this meant no protest notes would be forwarded to Washington, paused for a moment before replying: "As of yet, no."
The reason for his tentative reply is that the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industries (MITI) is also checking Washington's explanation, especially in reference to the 40-50 day delivery period. Therefore uncertainty remains on whether Japan will cable a protest.
One reason Japan may not send a protest note, according to an official source , is its own considerable guilt over post-embargo deliveries it has received.
To escape criticism Japan reportedly staggered the delivery of its Iranian oil purchases so they arrived as late as January 1980.
Its rationale was that deliveries spread thinly over several months would not be detected so easily as great volumes arriving all at once, and thus reduce the risk of being exposed to hostile criticism.
Now that the deliveries of Iranian oil to the United States have come to light, and embarrassed explanations offered, the Japanese feel the ice has been broken.
For them this issue could not have been better timed. Tension on a number of counts has been mounting as Foreign Minister Saburo Okita prepared for his March 19 visit to Washington to consult with American leaders.
His long agenda has both old and new issues. Among the old are questions on whether Japan will increase defense spending and reduce high-volume car exports. the relatively new frictions center on sanctions against the Soviet Union because of its invasion of Afghanistan and international outrage over the killing of dolphins by Japanese fishermen at Iki Island.
Mr. Okita will no doubt attempt to soften the Japanese image, explaining that cultural differences account for much misunderstanding. He will also argue that American consumers, by demanding smaller cars, have increased the flow of exports.
He will defend Japan's failure to impose sanctions on the Soviets because of Afghanistan on the basis that it should damage Tokyo, not Moscow, and that the health of Japanese trade is dependent on even-handed diplomacy in all directions.
But the toughest issue for Mr. Okita undoubtedly will be Washington's claim that Japan gets a free ride under the US-Japan defense treaty, particularly now that Japan is an economic giant.
There is a growing feeling here that Japan cannot continue forestalling an increase in its defense spending, since its current defense outlay amounts to less than 1 percent of the gross national product.
It is said that if Mr. Okita does not offer to increase Japan's defense share in Washington, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira will have to when he goes there in May. Otherwise, Mr. Ohira might face a tough session when he summits with his six Western-bloc counterparts in Venice in June.
Any move to increase spending will have to be made in the context that he has a very narrow margin in the upper house of parliament (Diet), which faces an election in July.