Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to use Tokyo's longstanding trade ties with Tehran and strategic alliance with Washington to persuade Iranian leaders to calm soaring tensions in the Gulf

Tehran (AFP) - Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Tehran on Wednesday for a rare diplomatic mission, hoping to defuse tensions between the Islamic republic and Tokyo’s ally Washington.

State television broadcast footage of Abe being greeted at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The first Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in 41 years, Abe was expected to go straight into talks with President Hassan Rouhani and to meet Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday morning.

His arrival was preceded by that of Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who held closed-door talks with Zarif.

Addressing a cabinet meeting ahead of the visit, Rouhani said Iran’s leaders and people were united in their view that “the main culprit is America. Not a single individual doubts it.”

“The (US) pressure has reached its full strength,” he told the cabinet.

Tehran is locked in a bitter standoff with Washington after President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal in May last year.

Washington has since reimposed crippling unilateral sanctions, which have forced Japan to halt its once substantial purchases of Iranian oil, and launched a military buildup in the Gulf.

Japanese Foreign Taro Kono hold talks with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif ahead of Shinzo Abe's arrival in Tehran on the first visit by a Japanese premier in 41 years

“Amid concerns over growing tension in the Middle East and with the attention of the international community on the issue, Japan wishes to do its best towards peace and stability in the region,” Abe told reporters before leaving for Tehran.

“Based on traditional friendly ties between Japan and Iran, I would like to have candid exchanges of opinions with President Rouhani and supreme leader Khamenei towards easing tensions,” he said.

- Lower the temperature -

Japanese government officials said Abe would not present Tehran with a list of demands, or deliver a message from Washington, but instead wanted to play the role of neutral intermediary.

Abe discussed “the situation in Iran” in a telephone call with Trump on Tuesday, a Japanese government spokesman said.

A government official said Abe will not be in Tehran to “mediate between Iran and the US” and that “easing tensions” was the prime purpose.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won Donald Trump's blessing for his mission to Tehran during a visit to Tokyo by the US president late last month

“He might touch upon the subject (of mediation) but that does not necessarily mean he is delivering a message” from Washington, he added.

Japan is hoping to lower the temperature, officials say.

Abe won Trump’s blessing for the mediation mission when the US president visited Tokyo last month.

“We believe it is extremely important that, at the leadership level, we call on Iran as a major regional power to ease tension, to adhere to the nuclear agreement and to play a constructive role for the region’s stability,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

- Substantial obstacles -

Iranian newspapers were divided along conservative-reformist lines in their assessment of Abe’s visit.

The reformist Sazandegi daily ran a front-page cartoon of Abe in full samurai armour, a rolled piece of paper in one hand and a shield on the other.

In an accompanying article headlined “A samurai in Tehran,” the paper said everyone was waiting to see “Tehran’s reaction to Japan’s initiative to raise its international standing by mediating as both Washington’s ally and Iran’s friend.”

The ultraconservative Javan daily, warned that “Iran and Japan minus America” could be a winning formula for Abe, but “Japan as America’s intermediary in Iran” would fail given the deep mistrust of the US.

Washington's deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier task force as well as B-52 bombers, an amphibious assault ship and a missile defence battery has sent tensions soaring in the region

Other Iranian commentators said Abe could pass messages between the two sides.

“Mr. Abe’s visit comes right after meeting Mr. Trump in Japan, so the Americans are interested in using this channel,” Ebrahim Rahimpour, a former deputy foreign minister, told Iran’s Shargh daily.

But while Tokyo has longstanding trade ties with Tehran and a strategic alliance with Washington, experts say Abe has little leverage with either side and mediation will be an uphill struggle.

The trip by the Japanese premier “faces substantial obstacles and is unlikely to bear fruit,” said Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo consultancy group.

“While Japan has good relationships with countries on both sides, these relationships do not necessarily translate into influence.”