As leader of a country that is a close ally of the United States and also has a long friendship with Iran, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to have his skills tested as a mediator between Washington and Tehran amid rising tensions between them.
“Japan is concerned about surging tensions surrounding the Middle East,” Abe told Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on May 16, calling on Iran to refrain from provoking the United States and defuse tensions.
Zarif visited Japan in a hurry, ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s four-day trip to the country from Saturday.
The Trump administration, which views Iran as an enemy and has imposed economic sanctions on the country, ramped up pressure on Tehran this month by dispatching an aircraft carrier strike group and strategic bombers to the Middle East.
Iran countered by announcing its intention to suspend some of its obligations under a 2015 nuclear deal and threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, a key channel for global crude oil transportation.
Based on the deal, the United States and Europe lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. But Washington unilaterally announced its withdrawal from the agreement last year and reimposed sanctions.
During last week’s talks, Abe reiterated Japan’s support for the nuclear deal and asked Iran to continue implementing it. Zarif said Iran does not intend to withdraw from the deal.
It is believed that Tehran wants Japan to act as a bridge between Iran and the United States.
A Japanese government source said Iran apparently hopes to convey its stance to Trump through Abe. The Iran issue could be one of the major topics at the Abe-Trump summit on May 27.
Turmoil in the Middle East could have a major impact on the Japanese economy, as the country heavily relies on oil imports from the region.
At a House of Representatives plenary meeting last week, Abe described the Strait of Hormuz as “vital to energy supplies for Japan.”
“Peace and stability in the Middle East is crucial for the global economy and the state of the world, and the region is critically important for Japan, as the country depends on the region for energy,” Abe said.
It is unclear how much Japan can contribute to easing tensions.
A Foreign Ministry official said that what is important is to help enable Iran and the United States to hold dialogue.
Still, the official sounded less clear about what Japan can do, as it is not party to the nuclear deal, which was signed in July 2015 between Iran and six powers — the United States, the U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany.