Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to play a part in easing tensions between Iran and the United States when he traveled to Tehran for meetings with the country’s leaders this week. In an apparent setback, however, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he was not interested in Abe facilitating a message exchange with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Abe, the first sitting Japanese prime minister to travel to Iran in 41 years, appeared keen to assume the role of peacemaker, just weeks after he met with Trump in Tokyo. On that occasion, Trump had signaled his own openness to talks with Iran and indicated he was relaxed about the idea of Abe reaching out to Iran’s leadership. Abe stressed the importance of avoiding an accidental military conflict amid escalating tensions.
Over the past two and a half years, Abe has built a close personal relationship with Trump – important due to Japan’s close security alliance with the United States – and has attempted to minimize public disagreements. However, on issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal, Japan has maintained a degree of independence from the Trump administration. Abe has repeatedly expressed his support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. Earlier this year, however, Japan was forced to cease oil imports from Iran as a result of U.S. sanctions.
Abe spoke with Trump by phone a few days before the visit to Tehran, apparently to coordinate on Iran policy. Japanese officials played down the notion of Abe acting as a formal mediator between the U.S. and Iran. At a press briefing in Tokyo on June 11, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said other players also had an interest in the issue and “we want to be able to carry the voice of the international community to Iran, not just the U.S.” The official noted that in the lead-up to the visit, Abe also spoke by phone with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia; Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi; and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.
The diplomatic engagements in Tehran began on June 12 with a meeting between the foreign ministers of Iran and Japan. Taro Kono, the Japanese foreign minister, reportedly urged Iran to abide by the terms of the JCPOA following Tehran’s announcement last month that it was suspending some of its commitments.
Later the same day, Abe met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and again emphasized the need to avoid armed clashes. At a joint press conference after the meeting, Abe said he would do what he could to reduce tensions between Washington and Tehran, but insisted that Iran also needed to play a “constructive role” in ensuring peace and stability, Kyodo News reported.
At the same press event, Rouhani argued the heightened tensions were entirely the result of “the U.S. economic war” – in other words, the sanctions – against Iran. Rouhani indicated that Japan had expressed an interest in resuming purchases of Iranian oil.
Abe gave an upbeat assessment of his meeting with Khamenei on June 13, saying that the Supreme Leader had expressed a desire for peace and had stated that Iran had “no intention to produce, possess or use nuclear weapons.”
However, Khamenei also took the opportunity to criticize the United States for its handling of the nuclear deal and for ratcheting up economic sanctions against Iran.
“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Khamenei told Abe, according to a Reuters report that cited Iranian state media.
Describing Trump’s recent comments that the United States was not seeking regime change in Iran as “a lie,” Khamenei said: “The Islamic Republic of Iran has no trust in America and will never repeat the bitter experience of previous negotiations with America in the framework of the JCPOA.”
The Supreme Leader took exception to a move by the U.S. Treasury the previous week to clamp down on Iran’s largest and most profitable petrochemical group on the basis of links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. According to Reuters, Khamenei told Abe that the new sanctions came just days after Trump’s visit to Tokyo and showed that the U.S. president was not seeking “honest negotiations.” Khamenei reiterated that Iran would not respond to coercive threats: “No wise and proud nation will accept negotiations under pressure.”
Kyodo News reported that Abe had used the visit to press for the release of American nationals detained by Iran. He reportedly mentioned the issue during the meetings with Rouhani and Khamenei at the request of Trump, although it’s unclear what response he received.
Analysts said the lack of a breakthrough was not necessarily a sign the talks had failed. Michael Bosack, a special advisor to the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, said Abe may have some discreet messages to deliver to the White House. “Anyone who says that Abe failed here misunderstands what mediation is. It’s not a one-and-done consultation,” Bosack wrote on Twitter.
“Maybe Abe didn’t realize what kind of long haul endeavor he signed himself up for, but no one should be judging the Japanese [government] this early in the game,” Bosack continued. An incentives-based approach would be necessary to make progress, and that would be where mediation was critical, he wrote.
The visit was overshadowed by news that two oil tankers – one of which had a Japanese operator – were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz on June 13. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, told reporters that the U.S. government assessed Iran as being responsible for the attacks. Pompeo said the United States would continue its “economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the right time.”
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, tweeted that the U.S. had made the accusation against Iran “without a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.” Zarif suggested that some officials were trying to “sabotage diplomacy” after Abe’s “important and constructive visit.”