Iran gears up for high-stakes diplomacy ahead of Japanese visit

Shinzo Abe will arrive in Iran on Wednesday after earlier meeting US President Donald Trump

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, during the 2014 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Reuters
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, during the 2014 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Reuters

Iran is preparing for a week of high-stakes diplomacy capped by the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to Tehran since its 1979 revolution.

Shinzo Abe will arrive on Wednesday in Iran after meeting US President Donald Trump, who has reimposed sanctions that were lifted after Tehran signed a 2015 accord to limit its nuclear programme.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also will visit Tehran this week.

What Mr Abe can accomplish remains unclear, as Iran has already warned Europe that it will begin to enrich uranium closer to weapons-grade levels by July 7 if it does not come up with new terms to the deal.

Japan is also trying to negotiate trade deals with Mr Trump, who has been quick to impose tariffs on other nations.

But Mr Abe, whose nation relies heavily on Middle East oil to power its economy, has already acknowledged the challenge.

"Between Japan and the United States, there should be close collaboration so that this tension surrounding Iran should be mitigated and alleviated, and it shouldn't culminate in armed conflict," Mr Abe said alongside Mr Trump in Tokyo in May.

The crisis, in which the US hurried an aircraft carrier strike group and sent B-52 bombers in the region, was sparked by Mr Trump's decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for lifting economic sanctions

Mr Trump said the accord did not limit Iran's ballistic missile programme or address Tehran's malign influence across the wider Middle East.

Those who struck the deal described it as a building block towards further negotiations with Iran, the government of which has had a tense relationship with the US since the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis.

Some members of the Trump administration, particularly National Security Adviser John Bolton, previously supported the overthrow of Iran's government.

But Mr Trump has stressed that he wants to talk with Iran's rulers.

"I'm not looking to hurt Iran at all. I'm looking to have Iran say, 'No nuclear weapons'," Mr Trump said in Tokyo.

"We have enough problems in this world right now with nuclear weapons. No nuclear weapons for Iran. And I think we'll make a deal."

The reaction has been mixed in Iran. Its rial is trading at 128,000 to $1. It had been 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the 2015 deal.

Japan had once bought Iranian oil but it has stopped under threat of American sanctions.

But Middle East oil remains crucial to Japan and recent threats from Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes, has raised concerns.

Mr Abe will arrive in Tehran on Wednesday and will stay until Friday, Iran's state-run Irna news agency reported on Sunday.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is expected to travel to Tehran before Mr Abe's arrival to meet his Iranian equal, Javad Zarif.

Mr Zarif, speaking at a high school in Tehran on Sunday, welcomed Mr Abe's visit but said Mr Trump had engaged in an "economic war" against Iran through the sanctions.

"We have said it clearly that economic war is not different from a military war at all," he said. "Mr Trump has announced that he is pursuing an economic war.

"Economic war targets ordinary people and is in fact terrorism. This policy must stop."

Meanwhile, Iran on Sunday announced what it described as a new surface-to-air missile battery it called the Khordad 15.

The system uses locally made projectiles that resemble the Hawk missiles the US once sold to the Shah and later delivered to Iran in the 1980s Iran-contra scandal.

The USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier ordered to the region, remains in the Arabian Sea and has yet to cross the Strait of Hormuz to reach the Gulf.

This is probably to protect the ship as it is already within range of air strikes on Iran, and to not provoke a response from Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which routinely harasses US naval ships.

Mr Maas will visit Tehran on Monday. Germany is one of the signatories to the nuclear deal and has sought to keep Iran in the accord.

The ministser visited Jordan and the UAE on Sunday. In Abu Dhabi, he said it was important to stop any military confrontation in the Gulf.

"We want to avoid any misunderstandings that would lead to automatic reactions that could lead to violence," Mr Maas said.

"All those involved bear responsibility to absolutely avoid a spiral of escalation and this is a view I will also express very clearly tomorrow, on the opposite shores of the Gulf."

He said Germany would not accept "less-for-less" in any negotiations over saving Iran's nuclear deal.

But Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, said any new nuclear deal would have to include concerns such as Iran's ballistic missile programme and regional behaviour.

"Any attempt to make this agreement successful, we think, needs all countries of the region to be a part of it," Sheikh Abdullah said.

Updated: June 10, 2019 09:54 AM

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