National

Iran sounds out Japan about possible Hassan Rouhani visit: source

Kyodo

Iran relayed to Japan on Tuesday its wish for President Hassan Rouhani to visit the country, a source close to bilateral relations has said.

Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, serving as a special envoy of the president, relayed the message to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a two-day visit to Tokyo from Monday, according to the source.

Iran is seen as hoping to realize such a visit at an early date, while Japan is expected to examine the proposal carefully.

The development comes after Abe visited Iran in June. He was the first Japanese leader to do so since 1978.

During the meeting, Abe also explained to Araghchi that Japan is considering sending the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East, to improve information-gathering capabilities and ensure commercial shipping operations can be conducted safely, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday.

Abe told Araghchi that Iran needs to fulfill its obligation to ensure the safe navigation of ships in the Persian Gulf, Suga said.

Amid rising tensions in the Middle East, and with the United States reinstating economic sanctions on Iran after pulling out of a 2015 international deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, Japan has been exploring how to contribute to the region’s safety without joining a U.S.-led coalition to guard ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz — a vital shipping route.

Asked by a reporter whether the Iranian official reacted negatively, Suga said, “I’ve been told that the kind of exchange you suggest did not take place.”

Rouhani has welcomed Japan’s efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East amid an ongoing standoff with the United States over a 2015 nuclear deal, the deputy foreign minister said Tuesday during a meeting with Abe, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Following the U.S.’s withdrawal from the deal, Iran has gradually stepped away from its commitments under the landmark agreement with major world powers — under which it had promised to limit its uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.

President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal last year, calling it “horrible” and “one-sided.”

Abe expressed concern over Iran’s departure from the commitments, saying that the deal must be preserved, according to the ministry.

Regional tensions have escalated after attacks earlier this year on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial sea lane out of the Persian Gulf, and a strike on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. The United States has blamed Iran for both incidents.

In a separate meeting with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Araghchi said the current situation in the Middle East and around the Persian Gulf is “more serious than ever before.”

“Tensions continue to run high. That is why discussions and cooperation between Japan and Iran are becoming more and more important,” he said.

Japan, which is a key U.S. security ally but also maintains friendly relations with Iran, has sought to play a mediating role, with Abe traveling to Tehran in a bid to broker dialogue.

Araghchi hailed the trip as a “turning point” in bilateral relations.

The U.S. has called for a coalition to patrol waters near the strait and protect commercial shipping, naming the initiative Operation Sentinel.

Japan has opted not to participate in the coalition, instead planning to send a Maritime Self-Defense Force ship and a patrol plane to the region for “research” purposes.