Iran confirms President Hassan Rouhani to visit US ally Japan

Announcement comes after Japan PM Shinzo Abe said Tokyo keen to play bigger role in resolving Tehran-Washington impasse.

    Rouhani will be the first Iranian president to visit Japan since 2000 [File: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP]
    Rouhani will be the first Iranian president to visit Japan since 2000 [File: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP]

    President Hassan Rouhani will visit Japan later this week, according to Iran's state media, marking the first trip to the country by an Iranian head of state in nearly 20 years.

    Rouhani will arrive in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, on Friday, Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi as saying on Monday.

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    Araghchi said the one-day visit will be "very intense" and that it comes as Iran faces maximum pressure from the United States and a wide array of plots to isolate it internationally, IRNA reported.

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said a week ago his country was arranging the visit because it wanted 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 percent of Japan's oil.

    Japan, a US ally that has traditionally had friendly relations with Iran, seeks to serve as a mediator between the Washington and Tehran, Abe said.

    The last Iranian president to visit Japan was Mohammad Khatami in 2000.

    Abe mediation efforts

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

    Subsequent US sanctions which block Iran from selling crude oil abroad have crippled its economy, prompting Tehran to gradually reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal.

    Abe, who has developed friendly ties with Trump, travelled to Tehran in June, in an unsuccessful effort to encourage Iran and the US to hold talks to reduce tensions.

    Abe's visit coincided with attacks on two oil tankers - one of which was operated by a Japanese shipping company -  in the Gulf that the US blamed on Iran. Tehran denied it was behind the attacks.

    Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry, said on Monday it was "natural" for Rouhani to visit Japan following Abe's move.

    Talks between the two leaders would focus on "issues and developments" in each other's region and the nuclear deal, Mousavi added.

    Japan had been a major buyer of Iranian crude but stopped purchases to comply with the US sanctions.

    Before heading to Tokyo, Rouhani is due to attend a summit of Muslim heads of state in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

    Monday's developments came after the US and Iran swapped prisoners earlier this month in a rare act of cooperation between the longtime foes.

    The exchange prompted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to say Tehran was "fully ready" for a full prisoner exchange, adding the ball was "in the US' court".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies