TEHRAN--Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the first visit to Iran by a Japanese leader in 41 years, pressed for calm amid the rising tensions between Tehran and Washington.(Tomoyuki Izawa)

TEHRAN--Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the first visit to Iran by a Japanese leader in 41 years, pressed for calm amid the rising tensions between Tehran and Washington.

“There is a need to avoid a military conflict at any cost,” Abe told reporters after meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on June 12.

Without actually naming the United States, Abe added, “While this will require patient efforts, I believe such efforts must be carried through for the sake of peace in the Middle East and the world.”

The prime minister said Japan was determined to fulfill whatever role was required to reduce tensions in the region.

The Japanese government hopes that Abe’s visit will serve as a catalyst for Iran to enter dialogue with the United States.

On June 13, he became the first Japanese prime minister to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

In his June 12 speech to reporters, Abe said, “I would like to express my deep respect to Ayatollah Khamenei for issuing on numerous occasions fatwas that said weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, went against the teachings of Islam.”

Rouhani, in his address to reporters, said the friction is being caused by the “economic war” carried out by the United States through its strict sanctions. But he said there would be “positive developments in the region and the world” once that economic war ends.

Rouhani also said that while Iran did not want a war with the United States, it would “respond firmly” if it is attacked.

Washington reinstated economic sanctions after leaving the multilateral agreement over Iran’s nuclear program in May 2018. Tehran has, in turn, temporarily suspended implementation of some parts of that nuclear agreement. Washington has also deployed aircraft carriers to the Middle East.

But Rouhani also welcomed Abe’s call for both sides to work toward relieving tensions.

"The prime minister was optimistic about the future" and said “positive developments are under way,” Rouhani said in his address.

Abe initially met with Rouhani in a format involving only a few senior officials, including Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Shotaro Yachi, the head of the National Security Council secretariat. A second segment involving a larger number of participants was also held.

In total, the meetings lasted for about two hours and 10 minutes, about double the original schedule.

According to government officials, Abe told Rouhani at the start of the first segment: “No one wants a military confrontation. I made the visit at this time in order to work toward reducing tensions.”

Abe also expressed support for Tehran’s decision to maintain the nuclear agreement.

Abe, who is on good terms with Trump, could hold the key in getting the two countries to talk.

Having the Japanese prime minister serve as a bridge between the two sides would allow the Rouhani administration to deflect criticism from hard-liners in Iran that it had bent to pressure from the Trump administration and entered negotiations.

Some in the Iranian government have expressed hope that Abe’s visit would become a second coming of the Nissho Maru oil tanker.

In the 1950s, when Iran was being isolated after nationalizing its oil industry, Japan became the first nation to import petroleum from the country, using the Nissho Maru.

The ship has since served as a symbol in Iran of its friendly ties with Japan.

(This article was written by Tomoyuki Izawa, Kotaro Ono and Shinya Sugizaki.)