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Japan PM Abe says visit by Iran's Rouhani being arranged

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday his country is arranging a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani because it wants to play a greater role in resolving a nuclear impasse between Tehran and Washington and in relieving tensions in the Middle East, the source of more than 80% of Japan's oil.

Japan, a U.S. ally that has traditionally had friendly relations with Iran, seeks to serve as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran, a role that is also expected by the international community, Abe said.

He did not give details of the visit. Local media have reported that it is being arranged for later this month, before or after Rouhani's planned visit to Malaysia to attend an Islamic leaders' conference.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Abe said his country is arranging Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Japan as the country seeks to play a greater role in relieving tension in the Middle East where Japanese oil imports mainly come from. (AP PhotoKoji Sasahara)

Tensions have escalated between Tehran and Washington since U.S. President Donald Trump's decision last year to withdraw from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Abe, who has developed friendly ties with Trump, traveled to Iran in June in an unsuccessful effort to encourage Iran and the U.S. to hold talks to reduce tensions. Sanctions imposed by Washington on Iran which block it from selling crude oil abroad have crippled its economy, and Tehran has gradually reduced its commitment to the nuclear deal.

“Japan will do its utmost to relive tension in the region and stabilize the situation through persistent efforts to hold a dialogue,” Abe said. “From the point of view of energy security, it is only natural for Japan to play a role to contribute to the peace and stability in the Middle East, while securing safe navigation for Japanese vessels.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Abe said his country is arranging Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Japan as the country seeks to play a greater role in relieving tension in the Middle East where Japanese oil imports mainly come from. (AP PhotoKoji Sasahara)

Abe's government is also set to approve a contentious plan to send its military to the Middle East to ensure the safety of Japanese vessels transporting oil from the region.

The Japanese troop dispatch, however, will not be part of a U.S.-led coalition protecting Middle East waterways, officials said.

Sending warships to areas of military tension is a highly sensitive issue in Japan, where the pacifist post World War II constitution strictly limits the use of force. Abe, however, has gradually expanded Japan’s military role in recent years.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Abe said his country is arranging Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Japan as the country seeks to play a greater role in relieving tension in the Middle East where Japanese oil imports mainly come from. (AP PhotoKoji Sasahara)

In June, a Japanese-operated tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Washington said Iran was responsible and urged Japan to join the U.S.-led military initiative.

Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi