(Persia Digest) - Shinzo Abe will become the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 as he seeks to ease rising tensions between Tehran and the US.
Government officials told a parliamentary committee that Mr Abe will visit from June 12-14, and hopes to meet Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, and the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Japan is a close US ally and has a friendly relationship with Iran, raising the possibility that Mr Abe could seek to mediate between the two countries, or at least open a channel of communication.
The last Japanese prime minister to visit was Takeo Fukuda in 1978, showing the unusual extent of the diplomatic initiative Mr Abe is taking in an effort to avert conflict with the US.
His trip comes after US president Donald Trump signalled in recent days that he is not seeking regime change in Tehran and is open to negotiations. Speaking this week in the UK, Mr Trump said “there’s always a chance” of military action against Iran, but that “I’d rather not”.
Mr Abe raised the possibility of a visit to Tehran with Mr Trump last week who gave the idea his blessing. “The prime minister and Japan have very good relationship with Iran so we’ll see what happens,” the president said on a state visit to Japan.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been rising since Mr Trump suspended a deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, that traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The president has since reimposed sanctions, putting pressure on Iran’s economy. A US military build-up in the Middle East — the Pentagon recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region — raised fears that the Trump administration was contemplating military action.
Japanese officials have played down the possibility that Mr Abe could act as a mediator, emphasising instead the value Tokyo places on stability in the Middle East as one of the region’s biggest trading partners. Japan’s goal is to calm tensions and prevent conflict, officials said.
Historically a large buyer of Iranian oil, the US sanctions have forced Japan to halt its imports.
Despite its close links to the US, Tokyo was not part of the nuclear deal that Iran struck with a group of world powers, putting it in a position of relative neutrality.