Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to visit Middle East amid tensions

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference in Chengdu, China, on Dec 24, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates next week as regional tensions spike after the US assassination of a top Iranian general.

Mr Abe "will make the trip from the 12th to 15th", a spokesman from the Prime Minister's Liberal Democratic Party told AFP.

The Prime Minister announced the details of the visit during a meeting with party executives.

"I'm deeply concerned about the tensions in the Middle East," he said, according to public broadcaster NHK.

"I hope to contribute to peace and stability in the region through diplomatic efforts to ease tensions."

The US assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week has raised fears of an all-out conflict, with President Donald Trump threatening "major retaliation" if Teheran makes good on a pledge to avenge the killing.

Mr Abe has in recent months tried to carve out a role as mediator between Japan's US ally and Iran, with which Tokyo has longstanding ties.

Tokyo and Teheran have maintained diplomatic relations for decades, even through the crisis with the West sparked by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent frictions over its nuclear programme.

In June, as tensions rose over Mr Trump's decision to withdraw from a nuclear deal with Teheran, Mr Abe visited Iran for talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.

But his visit coincided with a suspected attack on two oil tankers in the Sea of Oman, off the Iranian coast, which again sent tensions in the Gulf soaring.

And Ayatollah Khamenei categorically ruled out talks with Mr Trump despite Mr Abe's efforts to smooth a path.

Mr Abe later met Mr Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, and in December welcomed the Iranian leader to Japan - the first visit by an Iranian head of state in two decades.

Japan has walked a fine line in balancing its key alliance with Washington and its longstanding relations and interests with Iran.

It was formerly a major buyer of Iranian crude, but stopped purchases to comply with US sanctions imposed after Washington unilaterally quit the nuclear deal in May 2018.

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