Japan Premier Shinzo Abe hopes to ease US-Iran tensions in Tehran visit

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Tehran on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, represents the highest-level effort yet to de-escalate tensions between the US and Iran. (AP)
Updated 11 June 2019
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Japan Premier Shinzo Abe hopes to ease US-Iran tensions in Tehran visit

  • Abe's trip to Iran marks the first visit of a sitting Japanese premier in the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution
  • Hard-liners within Iran already have dismissed Abe's trip

DUBAI: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Tehran represents the highest-level effort yet to de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and Iran as the country appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers that America earlier abandoned.
But while Abe's trip to Iran marks the first visit of a sitting Japanese premier in the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, it remains unclear if he'll end up going home with any success.
Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade level on July 7 if European allies fail to offer it new terms. While President Donald Trump says he wants to talk to Tehran, the U.S. has piled on sanctions that have seen Iran's rial currency plummet along with its crucial oil exports.
The U.S. also has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region, along with hundreds more troops to back up the tens of thousands already deployed across the Middle East. The U.S. blames Iran for a mysterious attack on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, while Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen continue to launch coordinated drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The stakes, analysts say, couldn't be higher.
"Just going to Iran doesn't resolve any problem," said Kazuo Takahashi, an Open University of Japan professor of international politics and expert on the Middle East. "He would have to help open a path of dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, and that could be a major risk."
Iran's nuclear deal, agreed to at the time by China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S., saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Western powers feared Iran's atomic program could allow it to build nuclear weapons, although Iran long has insisted its program was for peaceful purposes.
In withdrawing from the deal last year, Trump pointed to the accord not limiting Iran's ballistic missile program and not addressing what American officials describe as Tehran's malign influence across the wider Mideast. Those who struck the deal at the time described it as a building block toward further negotiations with Iran, whose government has had a tense relationship with America since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis.
Trump spoke Tuesday with Abe, said Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief Cabinet secretary. Suga declined to give any details about what they discussed. Abe also in recent days spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, all of whom are fierce critics of Iran.
"Taking into account the current status of rising tension in the Middle East, we hope to ease tensions through leader-level talks with Iran, a regional powerhouse," Suga said.
Middle East peace is a must for Japan, which gets most of the oil fueling its economy from there. Japan had once purchased Iranian oil, but it has now stopped because of American sanctions. Recent threats from Iran to close off the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes, has raised concerns.
Abe is scheduled to see Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate within Iran's Shiite theocracy, as well as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Already though, Iran says it quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency that monitors Iran's nuclear deal, acknowledged Monday that Tehran has increased its production. However, Amano said he hadn't spoken recently with Abe.
Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.
Hard-liners within Iran already have dismissed Abe's trip.
"Just like the nuclear deal helped improved the country's economy, visits by people such as the Japanese prime minister will improve the livelihood of the people," the hard-line Kayhan newspaper sarcastically offered in an editorial Tuesday.
It remains unlikely Iran will want to engage in direct talks with the U.S. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated diplomat key in negotiating the nuclear deal, openly threatened the U.S. during a news conference Monday with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
"Mr. Trump himself has announced that the U.S. has launched an economic war against Iran," Zarif said. "The only solution for reducing tensions in this region is stopping that economic war."
Zarif also warned: "Whoever starts a war with us will not be the one who finishes it."
However, Iran on Tuesday did release U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-born internet advocate imprisoned for years in Tehran on internationally criticized spying charges. Zakka had done contract work for the State Department.
And overall, Iran risks little in inviting Abe to the country, said Henry Rome, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
"Khamenei and Rouhani get to show the beleaguered population that despite extreme economic pressure, top world leaders are still willing to visit Iran," Rome wrote Monday. "And Tehran can probe for opportunities to expand its trade relationship with Tokyo, although options are quite limited."


Iran’s Hassan Rouhani may skip UN meet over US visa delay

Updated 3 min 37 sec ago

Iran’s Hassan Rouhani may skip UN meet over US visa delay

TEHRAN: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his delegation could be forced into skipping next week’s UN General Assembly because the United States has yet to issue them visas, state media said Wednesday.
Rouhani and his delegation had been scheduled to travel to New York for the annual UN gathering on Monday, but that was now looking unlikely given the lack of visas, state news agency IRNA said.
“If the visas aren’t issued in a few hours, this trip will probably be canceled,” IRNA reported.
The delegation includes Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif, who the United States imposed sanctions against on July 31.
The foreign minister had been due to travel to New York on Friday morning, according to IRNA.
The absence of Rouhani would ruin France’s bid to arrange a meeting between him and US President Donald Trump as part of European efforts to de-escalate tensions between the arch-foes.
“Iran’s absence will show that in contrast with its commitments to the United Nations and international organizations within the framework of agreements, diplomacy has no value for the United States,” IRNA said.
“Although the Islamic Republic of Iran has not left the scene and it continues its active diplomacy, the US government must answer for its behavior,” it added.
The UN General Assembly debate is due to begin on Tuesday.
As the host government, the United States generally is obliged to issue visas to diplomats who serve at UN headquarters.
But Iran and the United States have been at loggerheads since May last year when Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal and began reimposing sanctions in its campaign of “maximum pressure.”
Iran responded by scaling back its commitments under the landmark accord, which gave it the promise of sanctions relief in return for limiting the scope of its nuclear program.