TEHRAN – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met Thursday in Tehran amid rising military tensions in the Persian Gulf , with Khamenei denying any intention to “develop, own or use any nuclear weapons,” according to the prime minister.
Abe explained Khamenei’s remark to reporters after the meeting.
Abe was staying in the Iranian capital as the first Japanese prime minister to visit the country in 41 years, with the stated aim of defusing tensions between Tehran and Washington.
“I heard him explaining his conviction that peace must be achieved. I understand that is a major step forward for the peace and stability of the region,” Abe said.
During the meeting with Khamenei, Abe quoted U.S. President Donald Trump as saying he doesn’t want to see “escalation” of the situation. Abe then explained his views on Trump’s intention, the prime minister told reporters.
However, after the meeting with Abe, Khamenei released a statement saying he “won’t reply to Mr. Trump,” saying he is “not a party worth exchanging a message with.”
According to Khamenei, Abe told him that the U.S. is ready to talk with Iran sincerely. But the Iranian supreme leader said he “cannot trust remarks by the U.S” in the statement.
Iran has been locked in a bitter standoff with the United States since Trump withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal in May last year.
Washington has since reimposed crippling unilateral sanctions — which have forced Tokyo to halt its once-substantial purchases of Iranian oil — and launched a military buildup in the region.
On Wednesday, Abe met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“It is essential that Iran plays a constructive role in building solid peace and stability in the Middle East,” Abe told a joint news conference Wednesday alongside Rouhani.
“Today, tension is rising in the Middle East. Some experts point out that the conflict might be triggered accidentally,” Abe said.
An armed clash “must be avoided by all means,” he stressed.
He added that Japan “wishes to play an utmost role in its capacity to ease the tension. This is the one single thought that brought me to Iran.”
Addressing the same news conference, Rouhani said he expected a “very positive change” in the Middle East and the world if the United States stops its economic pressure on Iran through sanctions.
“If there are some tensions, (their) roots stem from America’s economic war against Iran. Whenever it stops we will witness a very positive change in the region and the world,” Rouhani said.”We will not initiate a conflict in the region, even against the U.S., but if a war starts against us we will then give a crushing response,” the Iranian president added.
Abe began his visit to Iran on Wednesday.
Tokyo stopped importing Iranian crude oil in May to comply with U.S. sanctions against the Islamic republic.
Japan has an interest in keeping the Middle East stable in order to ensure the flow of cheap hydrocarbons to fuel its economy.
Rouhani said he saw “Japan’s interest in continuing to buy oil from Iran and fixing financial issues” as a “guarantee” for the ongoing development of bilateral ties.
A spokesman for Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Takeshi Osuga, later said that, on the questions of Iranian oil sales to Japan, “our understanding is that this was the wish of the Iranian side.”
But he added: “Oil purchase (from Iran) is the decision of private companies. I cannot predict their decision.”
The Iranian president also underlined a convergence of views with his visitor on the issue of nuclear weapons, which he said “both of us are against.”
Abe, for his part, expressed his “deep respect to the fact that the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei reiterates the fatwa which says ‘nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are against Islam.'”
As Abe landed in Iran, Yemen’s Tehran-backed Houthi rebels attacked an airport in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, media reports said, highlighting the escalation of regional tensions.
Earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, held talks in the Iranian capital.
Abe’s visit comes as Washington has left the door open for dialogue despite its abrupt withdrawal last year from the nuclear accord and the reinstating of economic sanctions. Japan is not a member of the deal but has been a supporter.
The trip gives Abe a rare opportunity to raise his diplomatic profile ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Japan on June 28 and 29 and prior to an election for the Upper House this summer.
Before making the trip official, Abe secured backing from Trump, who was on a state visit to Japan in late May, for his efforts to reach out to Iran.
Abe also spoke separately by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the crown prince of United Arab Emirates.
Roughly a year after Trump’s decision to leave the international nuclear accord that led to the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for its curbing of nuclear activities, Tehran said it was suspending some of its commitments under the deal.
Tehran set a 60-day deadline to negotiate new terms, saying it would keep more enriched uranium than allowed under the agreement initially reached with the United States, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China.
Washington has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf, and additional troops to the region.
Trump’s more aggressive approach to Tehran has prompted a delicate balancing act by Japan, which marks the 90th anniversary of its diplomatic relations with Iran this year.
Shortly after the Abe-Rouhani meeting, the U.S. State Department said the United States supports Abe’s efforts to reduce tensions between Washington and Tehran.
“Whatever the Japanese prime minister is able to do, we, of course, are supportive of anyone,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said at a press briefing.
The United States expects Japan and other allies to convey to the Iranian leadership a message that further escalation of tensions and military confrontations will not be tolerated, Ortagus said.
Abe and Trump are in “full agreement and full alignment” over Iran policy, she said.
“I’ve seen firsthand that our allies are in agreement with us that Iran’s destabilizing and malign activities must stop,” Ortagus said.
Iranian newspapers were divided along conservative-reformist lines in their assessment of Abe’s visit.
The reformist Sazandegi daily ran a front-page cartoon of Abe in full samurai armor, a rolled piece of paper in one hand and a shield on the other.
In an accompanying article headlined “A samurai in Tehran,” the paper said everyone was waiting to see “Tehran’s reaction to Japan’s initiative to raise its international standing by mediating as both Washington’s ally and Iran’s friend.”
The ultraconservative Javan daily warned that “Iran and Japan minus America” could be a winning formula for Abe, but “Japan as America’s intermediary in Iran” would fail given the deep mistrust of the U.S.
Other Iranian commentators said Abe could pass messages between the two sides.
“Mr. Abe’s visit comes right after meeting Mr. Trump in Japan, so the Americans are interested in using this channel,” Ebrahim Rahimpour, a former deputy foreign minister, told Iran’s Shargh daily.
But while Tokyo has long-standing trade ties with Tehran and a strategic alliance with Washington, experts say Abe has little leverage with either side and mediation will be an uphill struggle.
The trip by the prime minister “faces substantial obstacles and is unlikely to bear fruit,” said Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo consultancy group.
“While Japan has good relationships with countries on both sides, these relationships do not necessarily translate into influence.”