Japan's Abe to travel to Tehran to ease US-Iran tensions

Japan's Abe to travel to Tehran to ease US-Iran tensions
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Iran this week in an attempt to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran.
2 min read
10 June, 2019
Shinzo Abe is expected to position Japan as a neutral intermediary [Getty]

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will head to Iran this week on a rare diplomatic mission hoping to ease tensions between Tehran and Tokyo's key ally Washington.

Iran is locked in a bitter stand-off with the US after President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal last year.

Washington has now reimposed sanctions and shifted troops to the region, putting military and economic pressure on Iran, including by forcing US allies like Japan to stop purchasing Iranian oil.

Japanese government officials say Abe will not present Tehran with a list of demands, or deliver a message from Washington, and instead want to position Japan as a neutral intermediary.

"Japan carries none of the historical or religious baggage of other potential mediators... (and) has demonstrated its willingness to go its own way on Middle East policy," Michael Bosack, special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, told AFP.

"These factors better position Abe for engagement with Ayatollah Khamenei and mean that Japanese-proposed options could allow hardliners in Iran to entertain proposed off-ramps, without the potential fallout that could come from accepting 'Western' solutions."

Abe will meet President Hassan Rouhani and the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the 12 to 14 June - the first time a Japanese prime minister has visited Iran since 1978, a year before the country's revolution.

Against that backdrop, Japan is hoping to lower the temperature, officials say, with Abe winning Trump's blessing for the mediation trip when the US leader visited Tokyo last month.

"We believe it is extremely important that, at the leadership level, we call on Iran as a major regional power to ease tension, to adhere to the nuclear agreement and to play a constructive role for the region's stability," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said ahead of the trip.

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But while Japan has long-standing ties with Tehran and warm relations with Washington, experts say Abe has little leverage with either side and mediation will be an uphill struggle.

The trip by the Japanese PM "faces substantial obstacles and is unlikely to bear fruit", said Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo consultancy group, in a note on the visit.

"While Japan has good relationships with countries on both sides, these relationships do not necessarily translate into influence," he added.