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In Tehran, Shinzo Abe tries to play part of U.S.–Iran mediator

Shinzo Abe and Hassan Rouhani shaking hands
Hassan Rouhani and Shinzo Abe in Tehran. Photo: Presidency of Iran / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe begins two days of meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran on Wednesday — seeking "a frank exchange of views" and following up on a proposal to mediate for the U.S. that President Trump cautiously welcomed in May.

Why it matters: Abe’s visit comes amid Iranian escalation — of both its regional operations and nuclear program — and intensifying U.S. economic pressure. As Iran seeks relief from American sanctions, Abe is likely banking on the U.S.–Japan alliance and his close relationship with Trump to protect Japan’s interests and boost its image.

Flashback: Abe is Japan's first sitting prime minister to visit Iran in over 4 decades, though the country has played a similar go-between role before.

  • In 1983, Abe visited Tehran with his father, then–Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, while trying to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq War.

Background: Japan has had positive, although primarily economic, relations with both the shah’s government and its successor, the Islamic Republic.

  • While Japan was one of 8 nations to receive a waiver to continue purchasing Iranian oil last November, the country has signaled its intention to comply with Washington’s recent decision to terminate all oil waivers and has accordingly cut imports.

Between the lines: Iranian sources believe Japan fears escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf — the source of most of its oil. Tehran might use this fear to spook the Japanese government into trying to persuade the Trump administration to water down its maximum pressure campaign.

What to watch: Abe's meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday could determine the success of his visit. It's Khamenei, rather than President Rouhani, who ultimately controls Iran’s foreign and security policy.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.