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International relations

Abe urges Iran to play 'constructive role' to prevent clash with US

During historic trip, prime minister leverages unique position to ease tensions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran on June 12. The two leaders discussed the 2015 nuclear deal, among other topics.   © Reuters

TEHRAN -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called peace "necessary" for the Middle East during a historic trip to Iran Wednesday, as he aims to dial back tensions with the U.S. and push Tehran to adhere to the 2015 nuclear deal.

"We must do everything we can to prevent an armed clash," Abe said at a joint news conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after the two met at the Sa'dabad complex in Tehran, which houses historical palaces, museums and government offices. This is the eighth time the leaders have met, with their last meeting coming in New York in September.

Rouhani said America's economic war is the cause of the tensions. Abe, meanwhile, said that "Iran needs to play a constructive role" to prevent an unintended clash with the U.S.

"Peace and stability in the Middle East is necessary, not just for the region, but for the world as a whole," said Abe, the first Japanese prime minister to visit the country in more than 40 years. "Nobody wants a war, and Japan will do everything it can to ease tensions."

Rouhani also stressed the importance of peace. "We have no intention of starting a war," he said, adding that he hoped Abe's trip would turn a new page in bilateral ties.

Abe expressed concerns over rising tensions in the Middle East, which were underscored just hours before Abe spoke. Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen fired missiles at an airport in Saudi Arabia, a traditional U.S. ally in the region, wounding 26 people. Houthis have been launching attacks against Saudi Arabia since Riyadh began its yearslong war in Yemen.

"I have valued Japan's relationship with Iran since I took office," Abe said at the beginning of the meeting. Later, after other officials joined in, he said he wanted "a frank discussion toward easing tensions and creating stability in the region."

The talks continued for about two and a half hours, much longer than planned. The leaders and a small group of others, including the foreign ministers, met for about an hour and a half before the roughly hourlong meeting of the larger group.

Abe is pushing Iran to remain committed to a comprehensive nuclear deal it signed in 2015 with the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China. U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the framework last year and restarted economic sanctions on Iran, which led to Tehran announcing last month that it would no longer adhere to certain aspects of the deal.

The Japanese leader is believed to have communicated Trump's views regarding the situation, based on their discussions at a late May summit. He spoke to Trump during a phone call Tuesday before leaving for Iran.

Abe is the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran since Takeo Fukuda in 1978. He is expected to meet Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for the first time on Thursday.

Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran. Kono urged Iran to abide by the 2015 nuclear deal as a way to ease tensions in the region, and Zarif spoke on the issue as well, according to Japan's Foreign Ministry.

Zarif said the U.S. had launched "economic war" and "economic terrorism" against his country, an Iranian state broadcaster reported. Both foreign ministers attended Abe and Rouhani's meeting.

Japan relies on the Middle East for over 80% of its crude imports, much of which passes through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Instability in the region would deal a direct blow to the Japanese economy.

Abe plans to urge international cooperation on curbing tensions over Iran at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka on June 28 and 29, drawing on his discussions with Rouhani and Khamenei. He is expected to explore options for a potential dialogue between the U.S. and Iran in a phone conference with Trump after returning to Japan, as well as when they meet on the sidelines of the G-20.

The rift between Washington and Tehran has grown since Trump imposed additional sanctions on the country. The U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier group to the Middle East in May after officials said they believed an attack on U.S. troops was imminent. Some observers believe Trump will continue to harden his stance ahead of the next presidential election in 2020.

But Japan believes neither Iran nor the U.S. want the situation to escalate further, and are looking for an opening to talk. "Abe is the only leader in the world right now who can have a discussion with both Trump and the Iranian leadership," a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said.

The fundamental issues that caused the current rift, including the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal, still remain. Abe sees his trip and his upcoming talks with Trump as a way to first set the stage to ease tensions.

Rouhani usually attends the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Japan hopes that there is a possibility of him and Trump meeting on the sidelines of the event.

Trump has expressed openness to a dialogue with Iran. But he also has not ruled out the possibility of military action.

"We're not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear," Trump said during a trip to Japan in May. "We're looking for no nuclear weapons."

Iran currently exports about 250,000 to 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day -- less than a quarter of its peak in 2018. Shipments are only expected to decrease further now that the U.S. has canceled exemptions granted to certain oil importers on Iran oil sanctions. China continues to buy much of Iran's shipments, but ostensibly to collect claims on its existing oil interests there. India, which had delayed making a decision until after its general election in May, is expected to cut imports.

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