As its nuclear deal with world powers unravels amid heightened tensions with the United States, Iran is to engage in a week of high-stakes diplomacy capped by the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Shinzo Abe arrives in Iran tomorrow after meeting with US President Donald Trump, whose maximalist approach toward the Islamic Republic has resulted in the US reimposing sanctions once lifted by the 2015 accord and creating far-reaching newer ones. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is also visiting Tehran this week.
What Abe will be able to accomplish remains unclear, as Iran already has warned Europe it will begin enrichment of uranium closer to weapons-grade levels by July 7 if it doesn't come up with new terms to the deal. It also comes as Japan tries to negotiate its own trade deals with Trump, who has been quick to impose tariffs on other nations.
But Abe, whose nation relies heavily on Mideast crude oil to power its economy, already has acknowledged the challenge. "Between Japan and the United States, there should be close collaboration so that this tension surrounding Iran should be mitigated and alleviated, and it shouldn't culminate in armed conflict," Abe said in a May news conference with Trump in Tokyo.
Trump decided last year to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In withdrawing from the deal, Trump pointed to the accord not limiting Iran's ballistic missile programme, nor addressing what American officials describe as Tehran's malign influence across the wider Mideast.
Those who struck the deal at the time described it as a building block toward further negotiations with Iran.
Some members of Trump's Administration, particularly National Security Adviser John Bolton, have previously supported the overthrow of Iran's Government. Trump, however, has stressed that he wants to talk with Iran's clerical rulers.
"I'm not looking to hurt Iran at all. I'm looking to have Iran say, 'No nuclear weapons'," Trump said at the May news conference with Abe.
The reaction has been mixed in Iran. Its rial currency is currently trading at 128,000 to US$1. It had been 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the 2015 deal.
Japan had once purchased Iranian oil, but it has stopped over American sanctions. However, Mideast oil remains crucial to Japan and recent threats from Iran to close off the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes, has raised concerns.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed Abe's visit, but stressed Trump had engaged in an "economic war" against Iran through the imposition of sanctions.
"We have said it clearly that economic war is not different from a [military] war at all. Mr Trump has announced that he is pursuing an economic war," Zarif said. An "economic war targets ordinary people and is in fact terrorism", he said. "This policy must stop."
Meanwhile, Iran yesterday revealed what it described as a new surface-to-air missile battery it called the Khordad 15, while the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln remains in the Arabian Sea.
German Foreign Minister Maas was to visit Tehran today. Germany is one of the signatories to the nuclear deal and has sought to keep Iran in the accord.