Japan Premier Shinzo Abe hopes to ease US-Iran tensions in Tehran visit

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Tehran on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, represents the highest-level effort yet to de-escalate tensions between the US and Iran. (AP)
Updated 11 June 2019
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Japan Premier Shinzo Abe hopes to ease US-Iran tensions in Tehran visit

  • Abe's trip to Iran marks the first visit of a sitting Japanese premier in the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution
  • Hard-liners within Iran already have dismissed Abe's trip

DUBAI: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Tehran represents the highest-level effort yet to de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and Iran as the country appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers that America earlier abandoned.
But while Abe's trip to Iran marks the first visit of a sitting Japanese premier in the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, it remains unclear if he'll end up going home with any success.
Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade level on July 7 if European allies fail to offer it new terms. While President Donald Trump says he wants to talk to Tehran, the U.S. has piled on sanctions that have seen Iran's rial currency plummet along with its crucial oil exports.
The U.S. also has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region, along with hundreds more troops to back up the tens of thousands already deployed across the Middle East. The U.S. blames Iran for a mysterious attack on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, while Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen continue to launch coordinated drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The stakes, analysts say, couldn't be higher.
"Just going to Iran doesn't resolve any problem," said Kazuo Takahashi, an Open University of Japan professor of international politics and expert on the Middle East. "He would have to help open a path of dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, and that could be a major risk."
Iran's nuclear deal, agreed to at the time by China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S., saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Western powers feared Iran's atomic program could allow it to build nuclear weapons, although Iran long has insisted its program was for peaceful purposes.
In withdrawing from the deal last year, Trump pointed to the accord not limiting Iran's ballistic missile program and not 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, whose government has had a tense relationship with America since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis.
Trump spoke Tuesday with Abe, said Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief Cabinet secretary. Suga declined to give any details about what they discussed. Abe also in recent days spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, all of whom are fierce critics of Iran.
"Taking into account the current status of rising tension in the Middle East, we hope to ease tensions through leader-level talks with Iran, a regional powerhouse," Suga said.
Middle East peace is a must for Japan, which gets most of the oil fueling its economy from there. Japan had once purchased Iranian oil, but it has now stopped because of American sanctions. 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.
Abe is scheduled to see Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate within Iran's Shiite theocracy, as well as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Already though, Iran says it quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency that monitors Iran's nuclear deal, acknowledged Monday that Tehran has increased its production. However, Amano said he hadn't spoken recently with Abe.
Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.
Hard-liners within Iran already have dismissed Abe's trip.
"Just like the nuclear deal helped improved the country's economy, visits by people such as the Japanese prime minister will improve the livelihood of the people," the hard-line Kayhan newspaper sarcastically offered in an editorial Tuesday.
It remains unlikely Iran will want to engage in direct talks with the U.S. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated diplomat key in negotiating the nuclear deal, openly threatened the U.S. during a news conference Monday with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
"Mr. Trump himself has announced that the U.S. has launched an economic war against Iran," Zarif said. "The only solution for reducing tensions in this region is stopping that economic war."
Zarif also warned: "Whoever starts a war with us will not be the one who finishes it."
However, Iran on Tuesday did release U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-born internet advocate imprisoned for years in Tehran on internationally criticized spying charges. Zakka had done contract work for the State Department.
And overall, Iran risks little in inviting Abe to the country, said Henry Rome, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
"Khamenei and Rouhani get to show the beleaguered population that despite extreme economic pressure, top world leaders are still willing to visit Iran," Rome wrote Monday. "And Tehran can probe for opportunities to expand its trade relationship with Tokyo, although options are quite limited."


Ethiopia pays tribute to slain military chief

Updated 46 min 28 sec ago
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Ethiopia pays tribute to slain military chief

  • Hundreds of soldiers and officers in uniform gathered for the ceremony in a huge hall in central Addis Ababa

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia held a memorial on Tuesday for the army chief of staff slain with four other senior officials in weekend attacks that posed the biggest threat yet to the prime minister's reforms.
Abiy Ahmed, who survived a grenade attack at a rally in his honour last year, sat in the front row at the memorial and wiped tears from his eyes with a white handkerchief.
Abiy took power 15 months ago and has won widespread international praise for kickstarting political and economic reforms. But his shake-up of the military and intelligence services has earned him powerful enemies at home.
His government is also struggling to contain discontent from Ethiopia's myriad ethnic groups fighting the federal government and each other for greater influence and resources.
The foiled plot to seize control of the northern Amhara region and the assassinations in the national capital Addis Ababa underscored the threat of spiralling violence in Africa's second-most populous nation.
In addition to the killing of the chief of staff in the capital, Amhara state president Ambachew Mekonnen and an adviser were killed in the region's main city Bahir Dar.
The attacks were led by Amhara's head of state security General Asamnew Tsige, who had been openly recruiting fighters for ethnic militias in a state that has become a flashpoint for violence.
Asamnew, the alleged coup plotter, was shot on Monday near Bahir Dar, according to the prime minister's office. He had served nearly a decade in jail for a previous coup plot, but was released as part of an amnesty last year.
RISKS
Hundreds of soldiers and officers in uniform gathered for the ceremony in a huge hall in central Addis Ababa.
Roads in the capital were blocked for the ceremony and security was tight. Access to the internet appeared to be blocked across Ethiopia for the third straight day, users reported.
The coffins of army chief of staff Seare Mekonnen and a retired general, both shot dead on Saturday by Seare's bodyguard in the national capital Addis Ababa, were wheeled into the hall, draped in Ethiopian flags.
Photographs of the men in formal military dress were adorned with yellow roses. Seare will be buried in his home region of Tigray on Wednesday.
At the memorial, the army's deputy chief of staff General Birhanu Jula spoke of the chief of staff's bravery in the guerrilla war against the Communist Derg regime that was toppled in 1991, and of his leadership role in Ethiopia's war against neighbouring Eritrea in the late 1990s.
The weekend killings came as Ethiopia prepares to hold parliamentary elections next year, although the electoral board warned this month that they were behind schedule and that instability could delay polling.
SECURITY FORCES
Ethiopia's ruling coalition, itself a grouping of ethnically-based parties, is facing an unprecedented challenge from strident ethno-nationalist parties, global think-tank Crisis Group said in a briefing note on Tuesday.
Asamnew, who allegedly orchestrated the killings, had been appointed by state authorities as regional security chief in an effort to claw back support from Amharas supporting more his more hardline policies, including expansion of Amhara's borders, the group said.
"The 22 June killings confirm the dangers in handing security portfolios to hardliners like Asamnew who are ready to pander to extreme ethno-nationalists, from whichever of Ethiopia’s ethnicities," the note read.
Ethiopia analysts say the prime minister must tread carefully to restore security. Too strong a response risks derailing his reforms and angering a polarised population. But failure to punish those responsible could see violence could spiral out of control.
Mehari Taddele Maru, an independent Ethiopian analyst, said the government should channel public anger through dialogue, but if ethnic rivalries spread to the federal armed forces, that could destroy the state, he said.