Trump welcomes Japan’s efforts to improve Iran relations

On state visit president insists US is not trying to engineer regime change in Tehran

US first lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako listen to national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Monday. Photograph: Nicolas Datiche/AFP/Getty Images

US first lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako listen to national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Monday. Photograph: Nicolas Datiche/AFP/Getty Images

 

US president Donald Trump said he would welcome efforts by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to help improve relations between Washington and Tehran, as he stressed during a visit to Japan that the US was not trying to engineer regime change in Iran.

“The prime minister and Japan have a very good relationship with Iran so we’ll see what happens,” Mr Trump said when asked about reports that Mr Abe would visit Tehran in June and hold talks with the country’s leadership about lowering tensions. Mr Abe had hosted the Iranian foreign minister in Tokyo last week.

Mr Trump was speaking ahead of talks with Mr Abe on the third day of a state visit to Japan, which included an audience with Emperor Naruhito, the new Japanese monarch who assumed the throne when his father abdicated in early May.

Mr Trump’s comments come amid a US military build-up in the Middle East – the Pentagon this month sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region – and concerns that the US is considering military action against Iran. The state department also announced that it was removing non-essential personnel from diplomatic missions in Iraq because of a possible threat from Tehran.

“It has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership,” Mr Trump said of Iran. “We’re not looking for regime change, I just want to make that clear. We are looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Mr Trump added that he believed “Iran would like to make a deal” even though Tehran has stressed that it has no intention of renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal from which Washington withdrew a year ago.

“Peace and stability in the Middle East is extremely important not just for Japan and the US but for all of international society,” said Mr Abe. “We want to fulfil our responsibility as Japan and do everything we can.”

Mediator

Japan has a historically friendly relationship with Tehran, providing a market for Iranian oil and making few political demands in return. US sanctions on Iran hurt Japanese refineries set up to process Iranian crudes. But for Mr Abe to inject himself as a mediator between the two countries would be an unusual step for a country that typically follows the US lead on international affairs.

Mr Trump and Mr Abe have discussed a range of issues over the past two days, ranging from the US-Japan trade relationship to North Korea and US relations with China.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and US president Donald Trump at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on Monday. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and US president Donald Trump at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on Monday. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Mr Trump distanced himself from his own officials on North Korea, particularly his national security adviser John Bolton who said on Saturday that recent ballistic missile tests violated UN sanctions.

“My people think it could have been a violation. I view it differently,” the president said.

“Perhaps [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] wants to get attention, and perhaps not, who knows. It doesn’t matter,” he added. “All I know is that there have no nuclear tests, there have been no ballistic missiles going out, there have been no long-range missiles going out. And I think that some day we will have a deal. I am not in a rush.”

North Korea called Mr Bolton a “war fanatic”, according to a statement from the country’s foreign ministry published in state media on Monday.

Asked about the recent collapse of trade talks with China, Mr Trump said the US was not ready to make a deal.

“As far as China is concerned, they want to make a deal. I think they probably wished they made the deal that they had on the table before they tried to renegotiate,” he said.

Mr Trump said the US and Japan had made progress towards reaching a trade deal of their own to address what he said was a “tremendous imbalance” in trade between the countries.

He suggested that the countries would reach an agreement in August, although he said several months ago that he expected to sign an agreement before his current visit.

Tariffs threat

While Washington and Tokyo enjoy a much better relationship than the US has with other allies, such as Germany, Japan remains concerned that Mr Trump will take actions that will hurt Japan. Mr Trump has previously called for Japan to pay more to host US troops based in the country and he has talked about putting tariffs on car imports – a threat that he recently postponed for 180 days but which remains live.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Trump met Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace, becoming the first world leader to have an audience with the new Japanese monarch. The president returned to the Imperial Palace on Monday evening for a state banquet.

The move to award Mr Trump the first state visit of the Reiwa era underscored the lengths Mr Abe has gone to in order to ensure Japan maintains as strong a relationship as possible with the president. On Sunday, Mr Abe played golf with Mr Trump before accompanying him to watch part of the final day of a Sumo championship.

For the Japanese prime minister, the goal of the presidential visit is to secure his relationship with Mr Trump and turn that to political advantage ahead of the upper house elections. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019