TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has informed the Iranian government that he wishes to visit the country this year, a first trip by a Japanese leader in 38 years.
Abe hopes to swing by around the time he goes to Kenya in late August. Now that the U.S. and Europe have lifted their economic sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation, Abe intends to take the initiative to strengthen economic ties between Japan and Iran.
The last Japanese prime minister to visit Iran was Takeo Fukuda in September 1978. The U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 revolution in that country that toppled the pro-Western monarchy. Since then, Japan has sent foreign ministers to the country and taken other steps to maintain bilateral relations.
Iran is seen as a promising market, as it has the world's largest natural gas reserves, fourth-largest oil reserves and a population of about 78 million. Japanese corporations that had sharply downsized their Iranian operations or pulled out completely due to the sanctions are expected to resume investment and exports.
Other countries also are moving aggressively to deepen ties with Iran. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in January, while South Korean President Park Geun-hye is considering doing so. With leaders of countries such as France and Italy also getting involved, Abe faced growing calls at home to make a trip soon before Japan falls behind rivals.
Any trip to Iran likely will be on the way to or back from a Japan-Africa development conference that Abe will attend in Kenya on Aug. 27-28. Business leaders in industries such as trading, automobiles and energy likely will accompany Abe. The two nations signed an investment pact in February that spells out protection of companies and investment assets.
Some within the Japanese government suggest that Abe also visit Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia, which supplies some 30% of Japan's crude oil imports. Given the importance of Iran for Japan's diversification of oil sources, Tokyo needs to conduct balanced diplomacy to maintain good relations with both nations without playing sides.