This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to meet Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week in the first visit to Tehran by a sitting Japanese prime minister in more than four decades.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on June 11 that Abe will begin the three-day trip on June 12 as Tokyo hopes to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Tokyo is one of the closest U.S. allies in Asia and also has good ties with Tehran.
Relations between Tehran and Washington have plummeted since the United States one year ago pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran.
Since then, Washington has reimposed sanctions, stepped up its rhetoric, and beefed up its military presence in the Middle East, raising fears of a possible armed conflict.
On a visit to Japan last month, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to endorse a mission where Abe would serve as an intermediary between Iran and the United States.
Trump noted that Abe had a “very good relationship with Iran,” amid Japanese media reports saying that the Japanese leader was considering a visit to the Middle Eastern country.
“That would be fine. Nobody wants to see terrible things happen. Especially me,” he added.
Abe also hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in May. During his visit, Zarif expressed hope that Japan and other U.S. allies will take “practical measures in order to maintain this valuable international agreement.”
Abe has expressed support for the Iran nuclear deal that curbed the country’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
U.S. officials have signaled that Washington is open for dialogue with the Iranian leadership while insisting that force remains an option.
“They are failing as a nation. I don’t want them to fail as a nation. I understand they want to talk and if they want to talk, that’s fine, we’ll talk,” Trump said on June 6 as he met with French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to Normandy marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Macron said he agreed with his U.S. counterpart that new negotiations need to be opened with Tehran to restrain Iran’s ballistic-missile program and “contain” Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
In May 2018, Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear accord, arguing that the terms were not tough enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and did not address the country’s missile program or its support for militants in the region.
Iran has denied it supports insurgent activity and said its nuclear program was strictly for civilian energy purposes.