The first Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in 41 years, Shinzo Abe held talks with President Hassan Rouhani and is expected to meet Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini in hope to defuse Iran-US tensions.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a welcome ceremony in Tehran, Iran, June 12, 2019.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a welcome ceremony in Tehran, Iran, June 12, 2019. (Reuters)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travelled to Tehran on Wednesday to warn that an "accidental conflict" could be sparked amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US, a message that came hours after Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.

"There is a possibility of accidental conflict and a military conflict should be prevented at all costs," Abe told a joint news conference in Tehran with the Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani.

He added: "It is essential that Iran plays a constructive role in building solid peace and stability in the Middle East." 

'Positive change' if US ends 'economic war'

Abe's plane landed at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on Wednesday afternoon where he was greeted by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. 

He immediately met Iranian President Rouhani and will see Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini on Thursday.

Rouhani said he expects a "very positive change" in the Middle East and the world if the US stops its economic pressure against the Islamic republic through sanctions.

"If there are some tensions, (their) roots stem from America's economic war against Iran. Whenever it stops we will witness a very positive change in the region and the world," Rouhani said at a joint news conference.

Highest-level trip 

Abe's trip is the highest-level effort yet to de-escalate the crisis as Tehran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers, an accord that the Trump administration pulled out of last year.

It's also the first visit of a sitting Japanese premier in the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution.

But success may prove difficult for Abe, as the Iran-backed Houthi rebel attack on Saudi's Abha regional airport underscored. 

Separately, the front page of the Iranian daily Farheekhtegan, or Educated, published on Wednesday morning a picture of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear blast — a reference to America's bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

"How Can You Trust A War Criminal, Mr. Abe?" the newspaper asked in dual English and Farsi headlines. 

Hard-line news outlets in Iran immediately picked up the front page from the paper, published by students of Islamic Azad University, which has campuses across the nation.

'The main culprit is America'

Earlier, addressing a cabinet meeting ahead of the visit, Rouhani said Iran's leaders and people were united in their view that "the main culprit is America. Not a single individual doubts it."

"The [US] pressure has reached its full strength," he told the cabinet.

Tehran is locked in a bitter standoff with Washington after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal in May last year.

Washington has since reimposed crippling unilateral sanctions, which have forced Japan to halt its once substantial purchases of Iranian oil, and launched a military buildup in the Gulf.

"Amid concerns over growing tension in the Middle East and with the attention of the international community on the issue, Japan wishes to do its best towards peace and stability in the region," Abe told reporters before leaving for Tehran.

"Based on traditional friendly ties between Japan and Iran, I would like to have candid exchanges of opinions with President Rouhani and supreme leader Khamenei towards easing tensions," he said.

Lower the temperature

Japanese government officials said Abe would not present Tehran with a list of demands or deliver a message from Washington, but instead wanted to play the role of a neutral intermediary.

Abe discussed "the situation in Iran" in a telephone call with Trump on Tuesday, a Japanese government spokesman said.

A government official said Abe will not be in Tehran to "mediate between Iran and the US" and that "easing tensions" was the prime purpose.

"He might touch upon the subject [of mediation] but that does not necessarily mean he is delivering a message" from Washington, he added.

Japan is hoping to lower the temperature, officials say.

Abe won Trump's blessing for the mediation mission when the US president visited Tokyo last month.

"We believe it is extremely important that, at the leadership level, we call on Iran as a major regional power to ease tension, to adhere to the nuclear agreement and to play a constructive role for the region's stability," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies