- Associated Press - Monday, December 9, 2019

TOKYO (AP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday his country is arranging a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani because it wants to play a greater role in resolving a nuclear impasse between Tehran and Washington and in relieving tensions in the Middle East, the source of more than 80% of Japan’s oil.

Japan, a U.S. ally that has traditionally had friendly relations with Iran, seeks to serve as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran, a role that is also expected by the international community, Abe said.

He did not give details of the visit. Local media have reported that it is being arranged for later this month, before or after Rouhani’s planned visit to Malaysia to attend an Islamic leaders’ conference.

Tensions have escalated between Tehran and Washington since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Abe, who has developed friendly ties with Trump, traveled to Iran in June in an unsuccessful effort to encourage Iran and the U.S. to hold talks to reduce tensions. Sanctions imposed by Washington on Iran which block it from selling crude oil abroad have crippled its economy, and Tehran has gradually reduced its commitment to the nuclear deal.

Japan will do its utmost to relive tension in the region and stabilize the situation through persistent efforts to hold a dialogue,” Abe said. “From the point of view of energy security, it is only natural for Japan to play a role to contribute to the peace and stability in the Middle East, while securing safe navigation for Japanese vessels.”

Abe’s government is also set to approve a contentious plan to send its military to the Middle East to ensure the safety of Japanese vessels transporting oil from the region.

The Japanese troop dispatch, however, will not be part of a U.S.-led coalition protecting Middle East waterways, officials said.

Sending warships to areas of military tension is a highly sensitive issue in Japan, where the pacifist post World War II constitution strictly limits the use of force. Abe, however, has gradually expanded Japan’s military role in recent years.

In June, a Japanese-operated tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Washington said Iran was responsible and urged Japan to join the U.S.-led military initiative.

Abe also said there is no change to a planned state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping despite China’s escalating maritime activity in the region and growing concerns related to human rights issues, including a number of arrests of Japanese citizens on spying allegations in recent years.

More than a dozen Japanese nationals have been arrested in China since 2015, most recently a Hokkaido University professor who was arrested in September and eventually released and returned to Japan last month. His arrest prompted calls, even from some governing party lawmakers, to cancel Xi’s visit.

“I understand that there have been various opinions about inviting President Xi Jinping as a state guest,” Abe said. “But Japan and China both have heavy responsibility for the peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the rest of the world. … I want to clearly show and share with President Xi Jinping that the responsibility should be fulfilled.”

Japan’s relations with Asian victims of its World War II aggression, including China and South Korea, are still fragile. But Japan has improved its ties with China on the back of Beijing’s trade war with the U.S., while Japanese relations with South Korea have deteriorated over trade disputes and wartime history.


Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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