TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is arranging for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit Iran in the near future, Japan’s government spokesman said on Thursday, although details of the trip are being worked out.
Japanese media has said the visit would take place next week, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to specify a date or say whether Abe would meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
“We will make efforts to make it meaningful,” Suga told a regular news conference about the trip, which would make Abe the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in more than four decades.
The trip comes amid escalating tension between Iran and the United States and a year after the United States pulled out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb its nuclear programme in return for lifting sanctions.
On a visit to Japan late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Abe’s help in dealing with Iran after public broadcaster NHK had said Japan’s leader was considering a trip to Tehran.
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 U.S. sanctions.
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 U.S. 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 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani but there was always a chance of U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic.
Trump has condemned the Iran nuclear deal, signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, as flawed for not being permanent and for not covering its ballistic missile programme and its role in conflicts around the Middle East.
He has called on Iran to come to negotiating table to reach a new agreement.
Japan is not a participant in the deal, which was signed by Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States.
Seeking to mediate could be a high-risk, high return effort for Abe, whose ruling coalition faces an upper house election in coming months amid speculation he may also call a snap poll for the more powerful lower house of parliament.
But 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.
Reporting by Linda Sieg, Elaine Lies and Malcolm Foster; Editing by Nick Macfie