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In an exceptional deviation from Japan’s traditional protocol, the country’s hosts will not serve wine at official meals for a distinguished foreign guest: Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

The government and the Imperial Household Agency have agreed to entertain the Iranian leader without wine during his forthcoming visit, government sources said. The decision came after the Persian Gulf country threatened to cancel Khatami’s planned first visit to Japan if Japan did not agree to keep wine off the dining table.

“When we entertain guests, we should not do whatever they dislike,” one senior Foreign Ministry official said, requesting that he not be named.

In accordance with its traditional protocol, wine has traditionally been served at lunches and dinners for foreign leaders hosted by the Emperor and the prime minister. However, foreign guests from other Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have chosen not to drink it. No Islamic country previously had threatened to cancel a visit to Japan over wine being served.

Therefore, omitting wine from an Emperor-hosted banquet might be seen by some officials, especially those of the protocol-obsessed Imperial Household Agency, as akin to putting new wine in old bottles.

But one senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “There is no rule, even at the Imperial Household Agency, that wine must be served at banquets for foreign guests hosted by the Emperor.”

Khatami, who took office in the summer of 1997, will make an official four-day visit to Japan starting Oct. 31, becoming the first Iranian president to do so since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khatami, a moderate cleric and staunch advocate of greater political and religious freedom, took the helm of the Iranian government after defeating a conservative rival in a presidential election.

For most of the 1990s, Japan had restricted high-level government contacts with Iran out of political consideration to the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton, which has pursued a “dual containment” policy of Iran and Iraq.

The Clinton administration has labeled both Iran and Iraq, along with Libya and North Korea, as rogue states or, more recently, “states of concern,” although some signs of a thaw in relations between Iran and the U.S. have emerged since Khatami’s presidential inauguration.

The Khatami government has improved Iran’s hitherto chilly ties with most European countries as well as its Persian Gulf neighbors.

Last November, Khatami made the first visit to France by an Iranian head of government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The trip had initially been planned for the spring of last year, but it was canceled because of a protocol row between Paris and Tehran over whether to serve wine at official meals.

The November visit by the Iranian president was finally realized only after the two countries agreed to leave meals off the official agenda.

Ironically, French meals – not Japanese – are likely to be served to Khatami at a banquet hosted by the Emperor, in accordance with the Imperial Palace’s tradition.

Khatami’s forthcoming visit to Japan will culminate a series of high-level contacts that began between the two countries after he took office.

Japan has a strong desire to make the planned historic visit by Khatami a success. Therefore, it wanted to avoid letting the wine problem ruin the trip itself.

Iran is a major crude-oil supplier to the resource-poor Japan, which is heavily reliant on the Middle East for oil.

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