From left: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. Photo: DFIC.

On June 12, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran, where he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was the first time a Japanese prime minister had visited in Iran in 40 years.

Japan has always been careful in maintaining its economic relations with Iran. However, in the geopolitical spectrum, the current regimes of both countries have been detached. The only time leaders of the two countries met was in 2000 when Iranian president Mohammad Khatami visited Japan. Given that Japan imports a considerable amount of energy from the Persian Gulf region, it is rare to see such a low number of mutual visits. With US President Donald Trump’s continued berating of Iran, Abe’s sudden visit to Iran has gotten the world talking.

Ever since Trump took the Oval Office, tensions between the US and Iran have been at an all-time high as the Washington continues to impose sanctions on Tehran.

However, the Trump administration’s attempts to contain Iran have not been satisfactory. Khamenei’s cold policy of “no negotiation, no military action” has put the United States in a tough spot. Iran’s adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement it signed in 2015, is reaching a critical point where Iran may withdraw from the deal altogether if it and the US do not reach an accord. In order to ease the stalemate, the United States has to make a gesture to open up dialogues between the two countries.

As the United States’ stance slips, Japan now has the opportunity to step up as a mediator for diplomatic solutions. A close ally of the US and an important buyer of Iranian energy, Japan is suited to mediate issues between the two countries. The biggest factor for Japan is whether the US and Iran can effectively control their differences and deal with each other on a rational track. The endgame for Japan’s policy is to be exempted from US sanctions so it can continue to import Iranian oil. As for Iran, support from a major Asian energy buyer is essential for fixing its own domestic economic issues.

The special relationship between Japan and the United States provides a high degree of integration between the two partners in the fields of diplomacy and defense. Prime Minister Abe had a telephone conversation with President Trump on June 11, just a day before the Iran visit, during which the two leaders exchanged views on the Middle East situation. Regardless of the outcome, Abe’s visit will have a positive effect on Japan and enhance the policies of all three countries.

This article was first published on and was translated by Kamaran Malik.

Li Zikai

Li Zikai is an assistant researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.

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