Iran's Rouhani meets Japan's leader amid nuclear impasse

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is renewing his condemnation of the U.S. for withdrawing from a nuclear agreement and asking for Japan's help in efforts to maintain the deal as the two leaders meet in Tokyo

TOKYO -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani renewed his condemnation of the U.S. for withdrawing from a nuclear agreement and asked for Japan's help in efforts to maintain the deal as the two leaders met in Tokyo amid a continuing impasse between Tehran and Washington.

Rouhani, the first Iranian president to visit Japan in 19 years, told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the nuclear agreement with world powers remained crucial. Iran, however, has gradually been violating the terms of the agreement.

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

Abe, in his opening remarks, urged Iran to fully comply with the agreement and play a constructive role in achieving peace and stability in the region. Abe expressed concern about rising tensions in the Middle East and pledged to do as much as possible to help restore regional stability.

“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.

During closed-door talks, Abe expressed "grave concerns” over Iran's resumption of nuclear activities and urged Rouhani “to stop such acts," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Naoki Okada later told reporters. Abe also stressed the importance for Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

The Middle East supplies more than 80% of Japan's oil.

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

Rouhani, who was in Malaysia to attend an Islamic conference, arrived in Tokyo on Friday afternoon for an overnight visit to meet Abe and have dinner with him.

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

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. U.S. sanctions 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.

Surging gasoline prices sent many Iranians to the streets in anti-government protests. The government has cracked down violently, killing more than 200 people.

An Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which holds Rouhani responsible for the deadly crackdown, criticized Japan for welcoming him as a guest. “Receiving Rouhani ... will add insult to injuries suffered by the Iranian people and the families of the victims," it said.

Rouhani and Abe discussed a range of economic issues between the two countries, Okada said, declining to give further details. Japanese officials have said it would be difficult for Japan to resume purchases of Iranian oil if Rouhani asks because sanctions are still in place. Japanese companies have stopped importing Iranian oil since May.

Abe's government is to announce a contentious plan to send its military to the Middle East to ensure Japanese oil tankers' safety. Japan's troop dispatch won't be part of a U.S.-led coalition protecting Middle East waterways, apparently an attempt to maintain neutrality in a show of consideration to Iran.

Abe thoroughly explained this to Rouhani, who showed understanding of “Japan's troop dispatch under its own initiative," Okada said.

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

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.

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