Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on June 12 departed for Tehran to hold talks with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, among other officials.
Abe's visit comes as the United States has resumed economic sanctions against Tehran after pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran. Meanwhile, Tehran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, a strategic passageway for oil trade. The level of tensions between the two countries has soared to unprecedented highs.
Amid the impasse, if Iran were to abandon its commitment to the nuclear deal and start producing nuclear weapons, it might well develop into an armed conflict.
If such a scenario is turned into a reality, the Japanese economy would suffer an immeasurable blow, as over 80% of Japan's oil imports come from the Middle East. It would also cause serious repercussions to the global economy.
Given the state of affairs, Prime Minister Abe's venture to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran is of great significance.
The Iran nuclear agreement was signed in 2015 by seven countries -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal last year, Washington has faced a fierce backlash from European countries.
While China and Russia are close to Iran, both countries are at odds with the United States, putting them in no position to meddle in the affairs between Washington and Tehran. This has shored up Japan's position, in which it has maintained favorable relationships with both the U.S. and Iran, while not participating in the nuclear deal framework.
Japan has also maintained its ties with Iran even after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which drove a wedge between Washington and Tehran. Tokyo also upheld its neutral foreign policy at the time of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
In addition, Prime Minister Abe is at the forefront of world leaders in forging a close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. During Trump's visit to Japan in May, the president is said to have hailed Abe's plan to visit Iran. It is Japan's forte that it has gained confidence from both countries.
All the more because of that unique position, Japan is called upon to take a fair and impartial stance if it is to serve as a liaison between the U.S. and Iran.
Iran is experiencing an economic downturn due to the sanctions imposed on it, while President Trump braces for next year's presidential elections. Both countries apparently want to avoid the current situation from developing into war. It is therefore imperative for Washington and Tehran to engage in dialogue in order to break the deadlock.
Prime Minister Abe needs to ask Iran to remain committed to the nuclear deal so as not to raise current tensions any further. He then should listen to what Iran has to say. Tehran apparently attaches the utmost weight to having the sanctions lifted.
The prime minister is urged to convey Iran's requests to President Trump during the latter's visit to Japan later this month. The U.S. leader should also turn his eyes to the plight being faced by Iranian citizens. Through such engagements, both Iran and the U.S. may well be able to pursue a path to dialogue.
The ongoing U.S.-Iran tensions are attributable to the Trump administration's unilateral pullout from the nuclear deal. Prime Minister Abe should not hesitate to warn Trump against undermining the momentum toward dialogue between the U.S. and Iran by merely maintaining a hard-line stance against Tehran.