Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met separately with both Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country's president, Hassan Rouhani.
Tensions have been rising between Tehran and Washington since U.S. President Donald Trump yanked his country out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a seven-party agreement under which Iran pledged to limit nuclear research and development that could lead to a bomb in exchange for loosened international trade sanctions. How can Abe help quiet the U.S.-Iran saber-rattling?
During his two-day visit to the Islamic republic, the prime minister called on Tehran to continue to abide by its commitments under the nuclear deal, adding, "No matter what it takes, it is imperative that armed clashes be avoided."
President Rouhani responded by saying that Iran does not want war, while Khamenei stated that his country would not build, keep or use nuclear weapons, and had no intention of ever doing so.
However, the Iranian government has hinted that it could blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the gate to the Persian Gulf and thus the oceanic access point for much of the world's oil supplies. Tehran has also made moves suggesting it will start work on atomic weapons. Considering all this, prompting the Iranian leadership to make such measured statements can be called a real step forward.
Then again, Khamenei's and Rouhani's statements are very likely to have been made partly out of respect for their guest Prime Minister Abe and his tension-reduction mission.
Tehran's message for the United States, meanwhile, was much harsher. At his joint news conference with Abe, Rouhani stated clearly that it was the U.S.'s "economic war" against Iran that was causing the increasingly testy standoff. Washington's embargo on Iranian crude oil and other sanctions have hobbled the Middle Eastern country's economy and caused pain to its citizens, and Rouhani's comments expressed Tehran's deep mistrust of the United States.
But how can the Iranian administration clearly communicate that to the U.S. itself? Khamenei rarely meets foreign leaders for talks, and it seems he is counting on Abe being an intermediary between Tehran and the Japanese prime minister's close friend in the Oval Office.
Abe now needs to pass on Khamenei's words to Trump candidly, as a first step in seeking a roadmap to reduced tensions.
The Trump administration has begun suggesting it is willing to engage in talks with Iran without any preconditions. Trump is likely looking to make some new diplomatic deals heading into the 2020 presidential election.
On the other hand, the U.S. president would not be able to dodge criticism at home if he suddenly took a conciliatory stance on dealings with a long-term antagonist such as Iran. Nevertheless, there should be a search for common ground, narrow though it may be.
In May, the United States dropped Japan from its list of nations exempt from the oil embargo against Iran. If this stance can be reversed, it would benefit both Tokyo and Tehran.
On June 13, the same day Abe met with Khamenei, an oil tanker owned by a Japanese shipping company was attacked near the Strait of Hormuz. There were also multiple attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf last month. The U.S. and other countries have pointed the finger at Iran, which has denied any connection to the incidents. The background behind the attacks remains unknown.
It goes without saying that all the countries involved should restrain themselves to make sure tensions rise no further, as diplomatic efforts at dialogue get rolling.