Shinzo Abe to visit Iran this week to ease US-Iran tensions
TOKYO: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to Iran this week on a rare diplomatic mission, as he hopes to ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and Tokyo's key ally Washington.
Teheran is locked in a bitter stand-off with the United States after President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal last year.
Washington has now reimposed sanctions and shifted troops to the region, putting military and economic pressure on Iran, including by forcing US allies such as Japan to stop purchasing Iranian oil.
Japanese government officials said Mr Abe will not be presenting Teheran with a list of demands, or delivering a message from Washington, but instead wants to position Japan as a neutral intermediary.
That could prove useful, said Mr Michael Bosack, special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies.
"Japan carries none of the historical or religious baggage of other potential mediators... (and) has demonstrated its willingness to go its own way on Middle East policy," he told AFP.
Mr Abe will meet President Hassan Rouhani and the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the June 12 to 14 trip.
This is the first time a Japanese prime minister has visited Iran since 1978, a year before the country's revolution.
Against that backdrop, Japan is hoping to lower the temperature, officials said, with Mr Abe winning Mr Trump's blessing for the mediation trip when the US leader visited Tokyo last month.
"We believe it is extremely important that, at the leadership level, we call on Iran as a major regional power to ease tensions, to adhere to the nuclear agreement and to play a constructive role for the region's stability," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said ahead of the trip.
Iranian commentators said Mr Abe could ferry messages between Washington and Teheran.
"Mr Abe's visit comes right after meeting Mr Trump in Japan, therefore the Americans are interested to use this channel," Mr Ebrahim Rahimpour, a former deputy foreign minister, told Iran's Shargh daily ahead of the trip.
Iran will "announce our rights and stances and the other side can announce the messages that could be the US President's message," he said.
While Japan has long-standing ties with Teheran and warm relations with Washington, experts said Mr Abe has little leverage with either side and mediation will be an uphill struggle.
The trip faces substantial obstacles and is unlikely to bear fruit, said Mr Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo consultancy group, in a note on the visit.
"While Japan has good relationships with countries on both sides, these relationships do not necessarily translate into influence," he added. - AFP