TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Wednesday for a two-day visit to Tehran, saying he wants to have candid talks with the Iranian leadership to secure stability in the Middle East, in a high-stakes attempt to act as a mediator between Iran and the United States.
Taking advantage of Tokyo’s traditionally friendly ties with Tehran, Abe is set to hear opinions from Iranian leaders about the escalating standoff with the United States that has caused anxieties in the Middle East and beyond.
“There are concerns over rising tensions in the Middle East. While the situation attracts the attention of the international community, for peace and stability in the region, Japan wants to play a role as much as it can,” Abe told reporters at Tokyo’s Haneda airport before his departure.
“To ease tensions, I’d like to have a frank exchange of views,” said Abe, the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran since Takeo Fukuda in 1978.
Abe’s itinerary includes meetings with President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will hold talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif hours before the Abe-Rouhani summit.
Abe’s symbolic visit comes as Washington has left the door open for dialogue despite its abrupt withdrawal last year from an international nuclear accord and the reinstating of economic sanctions. Japan is not a member of the deal but has been a supporter.
The trip gives Abe a rare opportunity to raise his diplomatic profile ahead of a Group of 20 summit in Japan on June 28 and 29 before an election for the upper house this summer.
The challenges for Abe appear to be manifold, including smoothing the way for potential dialogue between Iran and the United States, Japan’s longtime security ally, by helping bridge the rift between them.
But Abe would not simply be a mediator, Japanese officials say, as Tokyo’s aim is to ensure stability in the Middle East, a critical factor for resource-scarce Japan. Iran had long been one of the major oil exporters until the United States ended its sanctions waivers granted to Iranian crude buyers.
Before making the trip official, Japan carefully laid the groundwork. Abe secured backing from U.S. President Donald Trump, who was on a state visit to Japan in late May, for his efforts to reach out to Iran.
Abe also spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
Tensions in the Middle East have risen in recent weeks, roughly a year after Trump’s decision to leave the international nuclear accord that led to the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for its curbing of nuclear activities.
Iran said in May it was suspending some of its commitments under the deal. Tehran set a 60-day deadline to negotiate new terms, saying it would keep more enriched uranium than allowed under the agreement initially reached with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Washington has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf and decided to send additional U.S. troops to the region.
Trump’s more aggressive approach to Tehran has prompted a delicate balancing act by Japan, which marks the 90th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic relations with Iran this year.
Since returning to power in 2012, Abe has held seven summit talks with Rouhani.