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Abe heads to New York with Japan-U.S. trade deal, Iran in focus

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Kyodo)

NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarks Monday on a trip to New York with two deals in mind -- an envisaged Japan-U.S. trade agreement and the strained Iran nuclear accord at the center of rising tensions in the Middle East.

Abe is scheduled to attend the U.N. General Assembly for the seventh straight year, giving a speech on Tuesday that will emphasize Japan's support for a multilateral approach to tackling global issues ranging from climate change to marine plastic debris.

One major highlight of his trip, however, will be his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday as they will likely sign a bilateral trade deal after negotiations that began with Washington dangling the threat of higher auto tariffs.

The deal, which Trump may claim as a victory, would see Japan cut tariffs on beef and pork and help mollify U.S. farmers who say they have been at a disadvantage since the entry into force of free trade agreements without the United States, including a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership.

High on the priority list for Japan is to secure assurances from the United States that it will not impose higher tariffs on auto imports.

"We'll make efforts to achieve a win-win agreement for Japan and the United States," Abe told reporters before leaving Tokyo's Haneda airport.

In the run-up to the summit, Japan's top negotiator Toshimitsu Motegi, who recently became foreign minister, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer plan to finish the remaining work on the deal.

Trade may steal the spotlight in the Abe-Trump meeting but Iran is also on the agenda. Triggered by Washington's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers and the re-imposition of economic sanctions, the U.S.-Iran standoff has intensified.

Tension in the Middle East has spiked since recent drone attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that have sent crude oil prices higher due to supply concerns.

Yemen's Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks, which the United States has blamed on Iran. Tehran has denied its involvement.

On Friday, the United States stepped up its sanctions on Iran and also decided to send more U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.

Japanese officials say Abe is expected to ask Trump not to escalate tensions and avoid unintended military clashes in the region.

As stability in the Middle East is critical for Japan, which relies heavily on energy imports from the region, Abe is set to call for dialogue with Iran.

Before meeting with Trump, Abe will sit down with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, looking to stress the importance of talks with the United States, according to the officials.

"I would like to exchange opinions (with Rouhani) in a frank and serious manner to ease the tensions and stabilize the situation," Abe said.

Abe has been seeking to mediate between the United States and Iran. He visited Iran in June, becoming the first sitting Japanese leader to do so in over four decades.

Abe also plans to encourage Iran to follow commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has been seeking to speed up uranium enrichment in apparent protest against the United States for stepping away from the accord.

Japan, which is not a signatory to the deal, has consistently backed it.

Abe is also scheduled to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and European Council President Donald Tusk on the fringes of U.N. meetings.

Motegi is making his debut as foreign minister in New York, while Shinjiro Koizumi, who assumed the role of environment minister in this month's Cabinet reshuffle by Abe, will attend a U.N. meeting on climate change.

Motegi will likely meet with his counterparts, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his stay through Friday.

The focus is on whether Motegi will hold talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha amid deteriorating bilateral ties over trade and wartime history. Japanese government sources have said they could meet Thursday.

After leaving New York, Abe plans to travel to Belgium to deliver a speech at a forum on Asia-Europe relations on Friday. He will return to Japan on Saturday.

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