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With aims of resuming oil trade, Japan's Abe urges Iran to avoid escalating tensions with US

Highlights

Iran was a top oil supplier to Japan before sanctions

Japan pledges 'maximum efforts' in soothing tensions

Abe in first Iran visit by Japanese PM in almost 41 years

Tehran — Japan, which relies heavily on Middle East crude supplies, called on Iran to "play its constructive role" in defusing tensions with the US and avoiding a regional war, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying Wednesday that geopolitical stability was vital to the world economy.

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Abe, who met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran seeking to build a diplomatic bridge between Iran and the US, pledged that Japan would also make "maximum efforts" on this front.

Japan cut off its purchases of Iranian crude in April to comply with US sanctions targeting Tehran's oil sector, but has been keen to regain those lost supplies even as US officials have vowed to bring Iran's exports down to zero.

To prevent a confrontation with the US and its allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Iran should not violate its nuclear commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and avoid any provocative moves, Abe said, in making the first visit by a Japanese leader to Iran in almost 41 years.

"At the moment, tension is growing in the Middle East and there are experts who point out to the probability of an accidental clash," Abe said in a press briefing. "But it is necessary that at any cost and in any way possible military conflict clash should be prevented."

Japanese refiners sourced 90% of their 3.19 million b/d of crude imports from the Middle East in the first quarter, according to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Several Japanese companies are also investors in a number of oil and gas projects in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Oman.

Rouhani said at the same briefing that he appreciated Japan's interest in maintaining economic ties, including in oil trade.

Iran had been one of Japan's top oil suppliers before the US began cracking down on sanctions enforcement last month, with March imports of 292,648 b/d, according to METI data.

"That the Japanese are interested to continue purchases of oil from Iran and also solving financial issues and scientific and cultural ties between the two countries is a point that can secure expansion of the two countries relations," Rouhani said, with Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh in attendance.

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Iran would not start any war, but would defend its interests if attacked, Rouhani added, decrying the US' "economic war against the Iranian nation."

The US under President Donald Trump has taken a hawkish stance against Iran, withdrawing from the nuclear deal forged by his predecessor Barack Obama that had relaxed sanctions and accusing Tehran of destabilizing the Middle East by supporting terrorist groups and testing ballistic missiles.

In November, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran. Six-month waivers granted to eight countries, including Japan, that allowed limited purchases of Iranian oil expired last month.

Nerves in the Middle East were frayed mid-May after four oil tankers were sabotaged off the eastern UAE port of Fujariah and a key Saudi pipeline was attacked by drones.

Saudi Arabia, which has cheered the US' hard line on its geopolitical rival, has blamed Iran-backed Yemeni Houthis for the pipeline attack, while US officials have accused Iran of being behind the tanker incidents.

Abe's visit marked the 90th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Iran and Japan, and the prime minister has sought to position himself as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, although neither he nor Rouhani spoke of any direct mediation at the press briefing.

Abe is scheduled to meet Thursday with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

-- Aresu Eqbali, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Herman Wang, herman.wang@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Valarie Jackson, newsdesk@spglobal.com