Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a rare friend of both President Donald Trump and Iran’s leaders, left for Tehran with the daunting task of bridging a divide that could plunge the Middle East into renewed chaos.
Abe’s visit from Wednesday through Friday comes as the U.S. has given scant indication it’s ready to ease sanctions it reimposed after abandoning a 2015 accord meant to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Tehran has said it can’t sit down with the Trump team while the U.S. is waging
“economic war” on it.
With the two sides so far apart, any step that reduces mistrust and hostility would be a welcome achievement for Abe, seen more as a stable hand running the world’s third-largest economy than a globe-trotting peace negotiator. Trump sanctioned the trip, which would be the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister to Iran in 41 years and includes talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
“What Abe can do depends on what Trump has given Abe,” said Kazuo Takahashi, professor of International Politics at the Open University of Japan, who specializes in Japanese policy towards Iran. “If he is going as a messenger boy, he is shaming himself in front of the world’s public opinion. I don’t think he’d take such a political risk without some ideas of inducement for the Iranians offered by the Americans.”
Abe, who spoke to Trump by telephone just ahead of his trip, told reporters at the airport before boarding his plane to Tehran Wednesday that he plans to have a frank exchange of views with Iran’s leader in Japan’s bid to play a role in the stability of the Middle East.
The trip comes as the Trump administration appears ready to step up its pressure, weighing sanctions against the Iranian financial body set up as a go-between for humanitarian trade with Europe. Such a move is likely to sever the economic and humanitarian lifeline that France, Germany and the U.K. have sought to create for Tehran. While Japan has maintained good ties with Iran for decades and called for Tehran to abide by the nuclear deal, its pro-U.S. stance could mean Abe’s offerings are received with caution.
Along with the Abe visit, diplomacy to salvage the Iran nuclear deal kicked into high gear this week with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas landing in Iran’s capital Monday and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency set to assess the state of the agreement supposed to rein in Iranian nuclear work in return for sanctions relief.
Iran has increased the rate at which it enriched uranium, although the amount stockpiled is still short of the 300 kilograms (661 pounds) allowed under the deal, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano told reporters.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told Maas the only way to reduce tension is ending America’s economic attack on Iran. The comments come after Tehran already set the bar almost impossibly high for Abe.
On Saturday, the country’s Supreme National Security Council said a successful visit means bringing a proposal for the U.S. to rejoin the nuclear deal, lifting its sanctions and paying for damages inflicted on Iran’s economy.
“I don’t think he will be able to re-start talks between the U.S. and Iran, or get the U.S. to soften its line on sanctions or Iran to accept some of the U.S. demands. It won’t be anything like that,” an energy expert with ties to the Abe government said.
“He will go and listen to the requests of the Iranian leadership and convey U.S. thinking to Khamenei and Rouhani, which will keep the dialogue going about the nuclear agreement,” said the expert, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the visit.
For Japan, there is an economic incentive to prevent tensions in the Gulf from spiraling out of control. It relies heavily on Middle Eastern energy, and before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the bulk of those supplies came from Iran.
But as U.S.-Iran relations deteriorated over the years, Japan significantly reduced crude imports from Iran in favor of supplies from its Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — all allies of Washington.
With Saudi Arabia saying last month there were
attacks on its oil tankers and Iran threatening to disrupt traffic in the Persian Gulf should Washington succeed in wiping out its oil sales, maintaining stability is of paramount importance to Japan.
The Japanese public isn’t expecting much of the visit, an opinion poll released Tuesday from public broadcaster NHK showed, reducing the political risks for Abe. The visit does increase his global exposure ahead of an upper house election planned for July and Japan hosting the Group of 20 leaders summit in late June.
His father, former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, also tried his hand — unsuccessfully — at defusing Middle East tensions with a visit to Iran in 1983. He met then-President Khamenei, who would eventually be promoted to the clerical hierarchy and the mantle of the Supreme Leader.
“Politically, we never had a huge issue with the Iranian government, neither pre- nor post the revolutionary period in Iran. Our economic ties have been stranded, I would say, because of pressure from Washington,” said Koichiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese Institute of Middle East Economies in Tokyo.
— With assistance by Tsuyoshi Inajima, and Takashi Hirokawa
(Updates first paragraph with departure for Iran, adds Abe comment before departure in fifth paragraph.)