It has by any reckoning been a long shot in diplomacy. When the Prime Minister of Japan was greeted with a guard of honour in Tehran on Wednesday, it signified the first visit to Iran by a Japanese head of government in more than 40 years.
Mr Shinzo Abe’s visit, therefore, is a watershed event. While he seeks to underline Japan’s influence on the world stage, he has unwittingly or otherwise posited his country in the vortex of a confrontation between the United States and Iran, one that could exacerbate to a conflict over matters nuclear.
The tensions, which began with President Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear accord and impose crippling sanctions, escalated recently as the Trump administration moved additional troops into the Persian Gulf after having accused Iran of plotting to attack American targets.
If his statement on arrival is any indication, Mr Abe is intent on avoiding friction. “It is essential,” he said, “that Iran plays a constructive role in building solid peace and stability in the Middle East.” Thus did he buttress the role of Iran in geopolitics with a message that was obliquely addressed to the US.
The visit is intrinsically a peace-making effort amidst the tensions that have been building up for a while. Relatively, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, was distinctly blunt in his reference to the US ~ “We have never started a war against any country, but we will firmly respond to any aggressor,” he said, clearly referring to the United States.
What could the compulsion for Japanese intervention be? Is the US dictating the terms of engagement, possibly even choreographing a tactical retreat using a third party? There is little doubt that business leaders of Japan are particularly worried.
Under American pressure, Japan has stopped oil imports from Iran, a country with which it has had cordial relations. In a sense, the crisis is an opportunity for Mr Abe, however. As the head of government who in November will become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japan’s history, he is intent on an enduring political legacy, and has tried to make a mark with diplomatic overtures to North Korea and Russia.
He has also tried to cultivate a measure of personal chemistry with the likes of Donald Trump, who has backed Mr Abe’s outreach to Iran. Small wonder the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit has been likened to a “24-hour diplomatic sprint”, during which time a meeting has been scheduled with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who plays a pivotal role in Iran, if now under a moderate leader.
Tehran might seek an assurance from Mr Abe that Japan is opposed to US sanctions that have dealt a crippling blow to its economy. For the moment, it will be a critical achievement if the Prime Minister can ensure peace and stability.