Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is being considered, the first official confirmation that a trip by him could take place.
Abe did not say when Rouhani would make the trip, though diplomatic sources said earlier that sometime around Dec. 20 is likely. It would come amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States over a 2015 nuclear deal, with Japan seeking to play a mediating role.
A visit by Rouhani is “under discussion,” Abe said when asked about it at a news conference Monday marking the end of the extraordinary Diet session.
It would be the first visit to Japan by an Iranian president since Mohammad Khatami in October 2000. Abe would likely use the opportunity to urge Iran to stick with the landmark 2015 deal, under which it agreed with world powers to scale down its nuclear program in return for relief from crippling economic sanctions.
The United States withdrew from the deal in May 2018, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling it “horrible” and “one-sided.” Iran has since gradually abandoned its commitments to limit uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels.
Abe may also seek Iran’s understanding regarding Japan’s plan to send Self-Defense Forces elements to the Middle East, according to the sources.
Tokyo is considering the dispatch of a destroyer and a patrol plane to the region to enhance information-gathering capabilities and ensure the safe navigation of cargo ships — a separate initiative from the U.S.-led coalition that will operate near the Strait of Hormuz.
Japan is a key U.S. ally, but it also maintains friendly ties with Iran and has an interest in easing tensions in the Middle East, from which it imports more than 80 percent of its oil.
“By steadfastly pursuing dialogue, we will continue to make every diplomatic effort possible to ease tensions and achieve stability in the region,” Abe said.
It had been expected that the United States would object to a visit to Japan by Rouhani, but the sources said Washington has already given Tokyo the green light, a decision apparently borne out of a desire to gain a better understanding of Tehran’s thinking.
Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, informed Abe of Rouhani’s desire to visit during a meeting last Tuesday.
Rouhani has been invited to attend a conference in Malaysia in mid-December.
Abe laid the groundwork for the visit during his trip to Iran in June, when he became the first Japanese prime minister to travel to the country since 1978, the year before the Islamic Revolution. He also met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On relations with China, Abe said he was aware of criticism over a planned state visit in the spring by Chinese President Xi Jinping amid outstanding issues including the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute and Beijing’s detention of Japanese nationals.
But he said the two countries play key roles in maintaining peace and stability in Asia, and the international community expects them to share that responsibility.
“We will continue to firmly make our position known and urge China to make positive moves,” he said.