TOKYO — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrapped up his two-day visit to Japan on Saturday as Tehran, under US sanctions pressure, sought economic support from Tokyo.
Rouhani’s trip to Japan, the first by an Iranian head of state in two decades, came after deadly protests over fuel price hikes in his country, where the economy has been hit by US sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Iranian leader on Saturday held a closed meeting at a Tokyo hotel with Japanese business leaders, during which he criticized those sanctions and expressed hope for strengthening longstanding ties with Japan, public broadcaster NHK said, quoting the Iranian foreign ministry.
The American sanctions were re-imposed last year after US President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the multinational Iran nuclear deal.
In an interview with NHK on Saturday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi lashed out at the sanctions as “unilateral, illegal.”
Rouhani, during a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, had called on Japan and other countries to help the Iranian economy.
“We welcome any plan that can increase trade, especially in the field of energy and increasing the exports and sales of oil,” he told Abe, according to Iranian state news agency IRNA.
Ahead of that summit, Rouhani had condemned Washington for “unilaterally and irrationally” withdrawing from the nuclear deal, saying: “I hope Japan and other countries will make efforts to maintain this deal.”
As a key US ally that also maintains close diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, Abe has tried to build bridges between the two rivals.
“The two leaders agreed to maintain their close communications,” a Japanese government official said.
Abe traveled to Tehran in June to try to ease tensions between the United States and Iran in the Gulf.
Japan was formerly a major buyer of Iranian crude but stopped purchases to comply with US sanctions.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei had played down the mediation aspect of Rouhani’s trip, saying the visit to Tokyo had “nothing to do with issues such as negotiations with America.”
However, he acknowledged that “our Japanese friends usually convey messages or initiatives, which we welcome… and seriously examine.”
During his meeting with Rouhani, Abe said “Japan will patiently continue its diplomatic efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East,” according to a Japanese government official.
Abe explained to Rouhani Tokyo’s plans to send Japanese warships to the Gulf of Oman to protect shipping there, while calling on Tehran to take “responsibility” for securing sea lanes in the region.
“This kind of policy is aimed at securing Japanese vessels’ safety,” government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said earlier in the day, adding that 90 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports come from the region.
Rouhani flew to Japan from Malaysia, where he called on Muslim countries at a summit to band together to fight US “economic terrorism.”
Osamu Miyata, head of the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan (CCISJ), told AFP that Abe would find it difficult to steer a path between Trump and Rouhani.
The American sanctions “are having a serious impact on every aspect of Iran — people’s daily life, the country’s finances, and inflation in imported goods,” Hitoshi Suzuki, a Middle East scholar at the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE-JETRO), told AFP.
“It would be difficult to have tangible achievements from the Rouhani-Abe meeting this time, but in the long-term, Japan can warn the US that the current sanctions are having a serious negative impact,” added Suzuki.
“This could prompt Iranian domestic politics to move in the opposite direction hoped for by the US — for example, hawks leading Iran to resume nuclear development, or the emergence of an anti-democratic Iran,” he said.