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International relations

Abe plays peacemaker but Iran leader offers no message for Trump

Japanese prime minister makes the trip at request of Washington and Tehran

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran on June 13.   © Reuters

TEHRAN -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's long-shot attempt at mediating between Tehran and Washington has yielded mixed results as Iran's top leader pledged not to make or use nuclear weapons but declined to engage with the U.S. president.

In a 50-minute meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday, Abe called for dialogue with the U.S., saying that "nobody wants military conflict, and the heightened tensions are a grave concern." Abe stressed that President Donald Trump has no interest in escalating the situation further.

Khamenei, one of Iran's most conservative hard-liners, was unmoved and brushed aside his overtures. "We do not doubt your sincerity and goodwill," he said in response, according to Iranian media, but "I do not consider Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with and I have no answer for him, nor will I respond to him in the future."

But the supreme leader did give Abe assurances that Tehran "will not and should not" make, own or use nuclear weapons, Abe said.

Meanwhile, Trump tweeted Thursday that he, too, is not ready to make a deal with Iran. 

"While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!" he said in his tweet.

This was the first meeting ever between a supreme leader of Iran and a Japanese prime minister, and the first summit between Khamenei and a leader from the Group of Seven industrialized nations since April 2016, when he met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The rare meeting suggests Tehran's desire to bring down tensions with Washington that have heightened rapidly in recent months.

Abe sounded upbeat after the meeting. "I could see he is committed to peace," he told reporters. 

Iran said in May that it would stop abiding by parts of the 2015 nuclear deal from which the U.S. withdrew last year. It also warned that it would resume enriching uranium beyond limits set by the agreement if there was no progress within 60 days toward relief from economic and financial sanctions.

With neither side able to credibly back down, Abe -- as head of one of the few countries with friendly relations with both sides -- hopes to leverage the diplomatic influence he has gained from his rapport with Trump to mediate.

"It's significant that Khamenei, as the supreme leader, said Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons," said Kunihiko Saito, who has served as Japanese ambassador to Iran and to the U.S.

"Iran has asserted that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. and others have been skeptical," he said. "Countries that are hostile [toward Iran], including those nearby like Saudi Arabia and Israel, will probably be pleased."

Abe also sought to get the ball rolling on dialogue between Washington and Tehran. "I spoke candidly with Ayatollah Khamenei about my view of President Trump's intentions," he told reporters.

Abe's trip to Iran marked a step into new territory for Tokyo, which had never been a player in the tangled geopolitics of the Middle East. "Japan will tirelessly play whatever role it can," the prime minister told reporters in a joint news conference Wednesday with President Hassan Rouhani. "I'm confident that this is a first step toward that."

The visit came about at the request of both Washington and Tehran, as both sides seek to reduce the risk of a clash that neither wants.

While Trump has been happy to turn up American pressure on Iran -- a stance with some support at home -- an actual armed conflict would become a political albatross. Facing a conundrum, Trump turned to Abe, asking him to drop everything and go to Iran as soon as possible.

Like economic negotiations, effective diplomacy requires a mix of carrots and sticks. But the U.S., which has ratcheted up military tensions and even deployed a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the Middle East, is now finding it difficult to back off. Trump was relying on Abe to play the good cop to Washington's bad cop.

Iran is in a similar predicament. Just before Trump visited Japan late last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went to Tokyo to ask Abe to visit Iran, hoping he could mediate, as Washington shows no inclination to budge.

The situation is not so simple that Abe can build a bridge between the two hostile powers with a single visit, but no one else is left to play the role. Europe once had that role, but Trump's increasingly troubled relationship with the bloc has made it impossible to do so effectively.

Meanwhile, Abe's warm relationship with Trump has bolstered Japan's influence on the world stage. Before departing for Iran, the prime minister told aides, "Only Japan can do it now. Just going there is itself meaningful."

In his news conference with Rouhani, Abe recalled visiting Iran in 1983 as an assistant to his father, then-Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. "I stand here feeling as if I've been able to reunite with an old friend," he said.

Reports emerged after Thursday's meeting that two tankers -- one owned by a Japanese shipper -- had been attacked near the Strait of Hormuz.

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