TOKYO — Japan sent a naval destroyer to the Middle East on Sunday for a rare overseas mission to ensure the safety of its ships amid lingering tension between Iran and the US.
The vessel left the Yokosuka naval base, south of Tokyo, for an information gathering mission in the Gulf of Oman, northern parts of the Arabian Sea and parts of the Gulf of Aden.
Japan earlier decided not to take part in the US-led Operation Sentinel to protect shipping routes in the region.
“Securing safety of vessels related to Japan is an important duty of the government,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the crew members of the 4,650-ton ship — the Takanami — as it readied to leave port.
Energy-poor Japan has traditionally enjoyed warm ties with Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, as the world’s third largest economy relies heavily on energy from the resource-rich region.
Abe has held a series of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders over the last year, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, in an attempt to calm the soaring tension between Washington and Tehran.
The naval destroyer will join two Japanese surveillance patrol airplanes that have been operating in the region as part of the same mission.
US-Iranian relations have deteriorated since US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Iran has since begun breaking terms of the deal.
The tensions have included seizures of oil tankers at sea.
Sending warships to areas of military tension is a highly sensitive issue in Japan, where its pacifist postwar constitution strictly limits use of force to the country’s self-defense only. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, has gradually expanded Japan’s military role.
In June, a Japanese-operated tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, which Washington said Iran was responsible and urged Japan to join the US-led military initiative.