TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Shinzo Abe arrived here for important talks with Iranian authorities, becoming the first Japanese prime minister to visit since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Abe’s flight touched down at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, with Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif on hand to welcome him, before heading to talks with President Hassan Rouhani.
"I've finally realized my visit to Iran. Since taking office (in 2012), I have always placed importance on our relations with Iran," Abe told Rouhani at the outset of their talks at Tehran's Saadabad premises.
Rouhani welcomed Abe, who visited Iran as the two nations mark the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Since returning to power in 2012, Abe has held seven meetings with Rouhani.
Abe, the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran since Takeo Fukuda in 1978, will also hold a meeting with Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on Thursday. It will be the first time a Japanese prime minister has met with the Leader.
Before leaving Tokyo, Abe said he wants to have candid talks with the Iranian authorities, amid growing worries in the Middle East and beyond about the risk of conflict between Tehran and Washington.
"There are concerns over rising tensions in the Middle East. While the situation attracts the attention of the international community, for peace and stability in the region Japan wants to play a role as much as it can," Abe told reporters at Tokyo's Haneda airport before departing for a two-day visit to Tehran.
"To ease tensions, I'd like to have a frank exchange of views" by taking advantage of Tokyo's traditionally friendly ties with Tehran, Abe said.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Iranian counterpart Zarif held talks in Tehran a few hours before Abe's arrival.
During the talks, Kono encouraged Iran to abide by a 2015 deal between the country and a group of world powers that curbed its nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
The trip gives Abe a rare opportunity to raise his diplomatic profile ahead of a Group of 20 summit in Japan on June 28 and 29 before an election for the upper house this summer.
But Abe would not simply be a mediator, Japanese officials say, as Tokyo's aim is to ensure stability in the Middle East, a critical factor for resource-scarce Japan. Iran had long been one of the major oil exporters until the United States ended its sanctions waivers granted to Iranian crude buyers.
Officials here said Iran will ask Japan to pressure Washington into lifting oil sanctions.
"Japan can help in easing the ongoing tension between Iran and America... As a goodwill gesture, America should either lift the unjust oil sanctions or extend the waivers or suspend them," Reuters quoted what it called a senior Iranian official.
To achieve his aim of slashing Iran's oil exports to zero, the Trump administration has revoked waivers since May that had allowed some countries, including Japan, to continue buying Iranian crude and has effectively ordered countries to stop purchasing Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.
Despite pushing for imports to continue, Japan has stopped importing oil from Iran for now to avoid U.S. sanctions.
Tensions in the Middle East have risen in recent weeks, roughly a year after Trump's decision to leave the international nuclear accord.
Washington has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf, and decided to send additional U.S. troops to the region.
Iran said in May it was suspending some of its commitments under the deal. Tehran set a 60-day deadline to negotiate new terms, saying it would keep more enriched uranium than allowed under the agreement initially reached with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.