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International relations

Abe and Rouhani discuss US-Iran nuclear deal standoff

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday to discuss the ongoing standoff between Tehran and Washington over the fate of a contentious 2015 nuclear deal.

Rouhani became the first Iranian leader to visit Japan since 2000 when he landed in Tokyo, his overnight stay seen as an effort to break the impasse over the nuclear accord that so riled U.S. President Donald Trump and led to the launch what he called a "maximum pressure" campaign.

"The nuclear deal is an extremely important agreement for Iran. That's why we strongly condemn the United States' one-sided and irrational withdrawal," Rouhani said in the meeting with Abe at his office in Tokyo, part of which was open to the media.

"We hope that Japan and other countries in the world will make efforts toward maintaining the accord," Rouhani said.

Abe told Rouhani that Japan hopes to help reduce tensions in the Middle East, a critical region for the resource-poor country.

But he also urged Iran to play a "constructive" role in bringing peace and stability and to fully abide by the nuclear deal.

Iran is struggling under oil and other U.S. sanctions that have crippled the economy, with increased gasoline prices sparking widespread protests and adding to the country's woes.

Experts say Tehran is hoping Japan will resume importing Iranian crude oil to strengthen economic ties.

The last Iranian president to visit Japan was Mohammad Khatami in October 2000.

During the meeting with Rouhani, Abe is expected to express concern about Iranian moves since May to undermine the 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and other world powers, Japanese officials said.

Tensions have spiked in the Middle East after a spate of attacks on oil facilities and tankers, including a vessel operated by a Japanese company near the Strait of Hormuz in June. The United States has accused Iran of being involved.

Abe is expected to call on Iran to fulfill its responsibility for the critical oil transport lane and to ensure ships can safely navigate the waterway.

Abe is hoping to be able to explain how, by deploying its Self-Defense Forces to the region, Japan is planning to contribute to Middle East stability, according to the officials.

Noting that Japan takes 90 percent of its crude oil imports from the Middle East, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "There is no doubt that the safe passage of ships is important for Japan."

"We will spare no effort trying to explain our plan (to send the SDF) during the Japan-Iran summit," the top government spokesman said at a news conference before Rouhani's arrival.

Japan has carefully weighed the SDF dispatch, deciding against joining a U.S.-led maritime security initiative to protect shipping near the Strait of Hormuz. Abe's Cabinet is expected to give the go-ahead on the plan after briefing Rouhani in detail.

The government has said an SDF destroyer and patrol plane will stay away from the strait and be dispatched to gather intelligence instead from the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Japan and Iran have traditionally maintained friendly ties and Friday's summit will be the 10th between Abe and Rouhani, who most recently met in September on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Abe became the first Japanese leader since 1978 to visit Iran in June when he tried to broker dialogue between Iran and the United States.

While the Trump administration has hardened its stance on Iran since Washington pulled out of the nuclear accord in 2018, remaining members such as France and Britain have been trying to salvage it. Efforts are also underway to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe, bypassing U.S. sanctions.

Japan is not a party to the landmark nuclear deal but has consistently supported the accord reached between Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. It is designed to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

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