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Japan informs Iran of potential SDF dispatch to Middle East

In this March 22, 2014 file photo, a destroyer, left, and a P-3C patrol plane of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force take part in an antipiracy operation off the Gulf of Aden, Somalia. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan told Iran that it is considering sending the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East to improve information-gathering capabilities and ensure commercial shipping operations can be conducted safely, the top government spokesman said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained the plan under consideration to Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister for political affairs, during their meeting Tuesday at the Japanese leader's office, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Araghchi serves as a special envoy of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

"We explained that we are considering the use of the SDF in enhancing our information gathering (in the Middle East)," Suga said at a press conference. "As always, we have been in close coordination with Iran."

Abe also told Araghchi that Iran, in its position on the Persian Gulf, needs to fulfill its obligation to ensure the safe navigation of ships, according to the top government spokesman.

Amid rising tensions in the Middle East, with the United States reinstating economic sanctions on Iran after pulling out of a 2015 international deal to curb Tehran's nuclear program, Japan has been exploring how to make its own contribution without joining a U.S.-led coalition to guard ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route.

In June, an oil tanker operated by a Japanese shipping firm was attacked near the strait. Japan has tried to balance its traditionally amicable ties with Iran and its relationship with the United States, its closest security ally.

The Gulf of Oman, which lies on the northern edge of the Arabian Sea, or the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, have been picked as potential locations for the SDF, according to Suga.

The government is expected to seek Cabinet approval by the end of the year to send an SDF destroyer and patrol plane to oversee shipping activities, government sources have said.

In Wednesday's press conference, Suga declined to comment on how Araghchi responded to Abe's decision.

Asked whether the Iranian official reacted negatively, Suga said, "I've been told that the kind of exchange you pointed out did not take place."

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