Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani recently made a two-day visit to Japan, the first visit by an Iranian leader in 19 years. The visit came amid the ongoing tension with the U.S. following the latter’s exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal.

What Was Discussed During Rouhani’s Visit?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Iran last June, still expressed his country’s willingness to help to defuse the tension in the Middle East, given Tokyo’s good ties with both Washington and Tehran. Abe previously failed to persuade Iran to hold talks with the U.S. In that case Tehran condemned the U.S-backed sanctions that followed American accusations that Iran had breached the JCPOA.

Japan Urged Iran To Stick With The Nuclear Deal

During Rouhani’s visit, Abe once again stressed the importance of the JCPOA, urging his Iranian counterpart to stick with their side of the agreement. After the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and decision to slap sanctions to Iran, Tehran retaliated by reducing its commitment to the nuclear pact.

“I strongly expect that Iran will fully comply with the nuclear agreement and play a constructive role for peace and stability in the region,” Abe said in his opening remarks.

Rouhani also denounced the U.S-backed embargoes that have crippled Iran’s economy, adding that he understood how vital the JCPOA was and his hopes that Japan and other countries would try their best to maintain the pact.

“The nuclear deal is an extremely important agreement, and that’s why I strongly condemn the United States’ one-sided and irrational withdrawal. We hope that Japan and other countries in the world will make efforts toward maintaining the agreement,” Rouhani stated through a translator.

A Proposal To Bypass Washington-Supported Sanctions

Before Rouhani arrived home to Iran, he revealed to journalists that Japan had offered a plan to offset sanctions, adding that Japan is keen to invest in Iran’s Chabahar Port, which has been exempted from the Washington-backed embargoes. Japan’s interest in Chabahar Port, which has direct access to the Indian Ocean, comes as no surprise, as both Abe and Rouhani had discussed this matter during Abe’s visit to Tehran last June. India is developing one part of the Chabahar region.

“The Japanese, Europeans, and others are working to bypass the sanctions, and they have suggestions and solutions in this regard, and we believe that breaking the sanctions is a national and revolutionary duty for all of us,” Rouhani said as quoted by Mehrnews.

Six European nations (Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Finland. Norway, and the Netherlands) have joined a payment mechanism called INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges ) to facilitate trade with Iran despite US-led sanctions. However, such a method is not enough in Iran’s current situation, as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Takht Ravanchi recently said.

Japan Stays Away From The Strait of Hormuz

Rouhani said he appreciates Japan’s decision not to join the U.S-led naval mission in the Gulf and The Strait of Hormuz, despite sending a patrol vessel to monitor the situation (but not in Gulf).

“Japan has announced it will not take part in the Americans’ plans for security in the (Gulf) region … which is something we welcome” Rouhani told state T.V. Saturday.

Both Rouhani and Abe did not discuss crude oil export during the meeting, according to a Japanese official speaking to reporters. Japan formerly relied on Iran’s oil before stopped buying it to comply with the U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, Abe is planning to deploy an SDF (Self-Defense Forces) unit, as part of an independent mission for research and investigation into Oman’s and Yemen’s offshore areas as well as their surroundings, excluding the Strait of Hormuz. Abe stated that the SDF deployment was aimed at stabilizing the situation in the Middle East, adding that Tokyo wants to do its best to defuse the tension between the West and Tehran.

Will Japan Become A Mediator In The US-Iran Conflict?

The question about whether Japan could mediate the U.S-Iran spat has emerged since Abe’s visit to Iran last June. Japan is one of the closest allies of the U.S. and also maintains a strong relationship with Iran.

Unlike the West, Japan does not have a dark history when it comes to the Middle East. Japan’s neutrality and excellent track record in the region are distinct advantages, leading to an argument that Japan could play an intermediary role in defusing the current tension.

However, some experts say that it is unlikely for Japan to maintain neutrality in this situation despite its robust relationship with both warring countries.

“Common sense says there is little Japan can do” to defy U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran, said Yasuyuki Matsunaga, a professor of international relations at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Even Iranian diplomatic experts must know that Japan cannot take any measures that would go against the sanctions,” he added.

Abe received a phone call from U.S. President Donald Trump after Rouhani concluded his two-day visit to Japan, demonstrating how difficult it is for Iran not to doubt Japan’s role as a neutral mediator that could be neutral toward both sides in the ongoing dispute.

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