Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will visit Iran next week to ease Middle East tensions and save a landmark nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers.
Japan’s government spokesman said on Thursday details of Abe’s trip are being worked out.
Local media have said Abe will hold talks with Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
“We will make efforts to make it meaningful,” chief cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular news conference about the trip, which would make Abe the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in 41 years.
“We believe it is extremely important that, at the leadership level, we call on Iran as a major regional power to ease tension, to adhere to the nuclear agreement and to play a constructive role for the region’s stability,” Suga said, adding that the visit will take place from June 12-14.
The trip comes amid escalating tension between Iran and the United States and a year after US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear which was originally signed by Iran, the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions.
On a visit to Japan late last month, Trump welcomed Abe’s help in dealing with Iran after public broadcaster NHK had said Japan’s leader was considering a trip to Tehran.
During his state visit to Tokyo in late May, Trump welcomed Abe’s mediation efforts and said he remained open to talks with Iran, appearing to give the green light to Abe's plan.
Abe told a news conference with Trump: "By closely cooperating between Japan and the US, I would like to help ease the current tension surrounding the Iranian situation."
Japan is keen to see stability in the Middle East as the bulk of its oil imports come from the region, although it recently stopped buying oil from Iran because of US sanctions.
Japan and Iran have maintained a good relationship as resource-poor Japan relies heavily on imports of oil from the Middle East, though crude from Iran accounted for just 5.3 percent of the country's total imports last year.
On the other hand, Trump has ratcheted up barbs ever since he was elected as president in 2016.
Living up to his campaign promises, Trump withdrew the US in May 2018 from the nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions.
The war of words intensified after Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps was designated a "terrorist organization," with Tehran hitting back by declaring the US a "state sponsor of terrorism" and Washington's forces in the region "terrorist groups."
Fears the war of words could flare into a military clash escalated when Washington dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group, an amphibious assault ship, a Patriot missile battery and B-52 bombers to the region.
Diplomatic experts said the most Abe could probably achieve would be to persuade Iran and the United States to resume direct talks and dial down tension.
Both sides may be seeking a face-saving way out of the confrontation, they said, and Abe is well placed to help out.
Japan and Iran have long had friendly ties and are celebrating the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year. Abe has forged warm relations with Trump.
“The best that Abe can say is to propose to Iran’s Supreme Leader to sit down with the US president without any pre-conditions,” said a former Japanese diplomat who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Trump, speaking on a visit to London, said on Wednesday that he was prepared to talk to President Rouhani but there was always a chance of US military action against the Islamic Republic.
He has called on Iran to come to the negotiating table to reach a new deal. Trump has said the nuclear agreement failed to sufficiently curb Iran's atomic ability or halt its regional activities and missile program.
The former diplomat said Abe had probably received positive signals from both sides.
“Abe may be taking a risk but I don’t think so – I don’t think Iran will treat Mr. Abe badly. I don’t think Iran will let the prime minister go home empty handed,” he said.
A diplomatic source agreed Abe was unlikely to be making the high-profile trip without some assurances from Washington.
“Abe apparently has some guarantee that whatever he does, it doesn’t blow back,” the source said.
Saving nuclear deal
Meanwhile, the office of Germany's foreign minister said Thursday Maas will discuss the faltering nuclear accord during his trip to Iran.
The visit will be part of a broader trip to the Middle East starting Friday, with stops in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said.
Maas plans to meet his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif on Monday to discuss Tehran's role in the restive region and the nuclear deal.
"We want to preserve this nuclear agreement because we believe it is a good agreement," Adebahr said.
Maas discussed the trip with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a recent visit to Berlin and coordinated with Britain and France, she said.
Iran has threatened to also walk away from the deal unless the other signatories take steps within the next month to neutralize the effect of US sanctions.
Adebahr said Germany shares many of the US concerns about Iran's role in the region and its nuclear program, but believes sticking to the accord is the best solution.
"I think it's no secret that we currently have different views on the way to reaching a shared goal," she said.
AFP, AP and Reuters contributed to this report.