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Japan, US agree to avoid escalating situation in Middle East

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Foreign Ministry/Kyodo)

SAN FRANCISCO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed Tuesday to step up diplomatic efforts to avoid an escalation in tensions in the Middle East amid a standoff between the United States and Iran.

"We share the goal with the United States that we don't recognize Iran's possession of nuclear weapons, and that we promote regional peace and stability," Motegi told journalists after talks with Pompeo in East Palo Alto, near San Francisco.

Motegi said he voiced "deep concern" to Pompeo about heightened tensions in the Middle East, a region that provides a third of the world's oil.

Hostilities between Washington and Tehran, foes going back to just after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, sharply escalated after a top Iranian commander was killed in a U.S. drone strike earlier this month.

The slaying of Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force, prompted Iran to fire more than a dozen missiles at Iraqi military bases hosting American troops.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded by announcing new economic sanctions on Iran but said he does not want to use force, easing fears of an immediate wider conflict.

In East Palo Alto, Motegi said he welcomed the restraint shown by the United States, and that he voiced hope that all involved parties would make efforts to reach a diplomatic solution.

Japan, a key American ally which traditionally has maintained friendly ties with Iran, has sought to play a mediator role in an effort to bring stability back to a region from which it procures roughly 90 percent of its oil.

During the meeting, Motegi and Pompeo also exchanged views on North Korea, which has warned it will unveil a "new strategic weapon" after a deadline set by Pyongyang for the end of 2019 for progress on denuclearization negotiations passed without a breakthrough.

The meeting came days ahead of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty, which provides for American troops to be stationed in Japan and defend the country from attack.

Separately in Washington, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono and his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper pledged to cooperate in dealing with the situation in the Middle East, as Kono briefed the Pentagon chief about Japan's dispatch of a warship and patrol planes to the Middle East on an intelligence-gathering mission that aims to protect commercial shipping.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force is conducting the mission separate from a U.S.-led coalition operating near the Strait of Hormuz, launched following attacks on tankers and Saudi oil facilities that Washington blamed on Tehran.

At a joint press conference, Esper welcomed Japan's efforts and added, "We will continue to share information and cooperate on operations in the Middle East, as we work to promote freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce."

Japan opted not to participate in "Operation Sentinel," as the U.S. initiative is called, out of concern doing so would hurt its relationship with Iran.

Tensions in the region have been running high following Trump's May 2018 decision to withdraw the United States from a landmark nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers. Tehran has since gradually abandoned its commitments to curb uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returns from a tour of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, on Wednesday, has strived to de-escalate the situation. His visit to Iran in June was the first by a Japanese leader since 1978.

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