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Tankers hit amid Abe's 'mission impossible' to Iran

Regional tensions spiked with the worst possible timing for Shinzo Abe on Thursday, as he undertook the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Abe's peacekeeping mission, which some observers believe was doomed from the start, was not helped when an attack was reported on two ships in the Strait of Hormuz on the same day he was meeting the country's top leader, following a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday.

Abe was ostensibly mediating between Iran's leaders and his key global ally, United States President Donald Trump. However, the rare trip - Japanese premiers are not, customarily, high-profile peacemakers - also involved self-interest.

Japan is heavily reliant upon Middle Eastern oil. Any Iran-US conflict in the Gulf would almost certainly be bloody and likely to add a large risk premium to oil, dealing a heavy blow to Abe's energy-hungry economy. That risk was made glaringly apparent on the second day of Abe's stay in Tehran.

Reports on Thursday of two tankers being attacked and damaged near the Strait of Hormuz, and sending distress signals to nearby US warships, sparked an immediate 4.5% leap in oil prices.

The vessels notably contained "Japan-related cargo", the AP quoted Japan's trade ministry as saying.

'Tanker crews evacuated'

The crews of two oil tankers were reportedly evacuated off the coast of Iran after they were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The mysterious attacks are the second on ships in the strategic sea lane in a month.

Iran said its navy rescued 44 crew members after the two vessels caught fire in "accidents" off its coast. Iranian state TV showed a picture of one tanker billowing smoke allegedly off the coast of Oman.

The news comes one month after the UAE and Saudi Arabia reported a similar attack on four vessels in the Gulf of Oman. The Emirati foreign ministry at the time said there had been no injuries or fatalities, and no spillage of fuel or harmful chemicals.

Scarce information has been revealed about the nature of the alleged May 12 attacks. A video report by Abu Dhabi's Sky News showed the hull of one vessel, the Andrea Victory, appearing to be twisted in one area from an impact at the waterline, though it was unclear exactly what had occurred. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have suggested Tehran was behind the attacks, but stopped short of directly accusing the Islamic Republic at the UN Security Council earlier this month.

Tokyo goes to Tehran

Abe met Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, today. In the first report from that meeting, Abe told reporters: "Supreme Leader Khamenei made a comment that the country will not and should not make, hold or use nuclear weapons, and that it has no such intentions."

Khamenei's reported statement is, however, a reiteration of a long-stated Iranian position. Unless Abe has engineered some kind of diplomatic engagement he has not made public, signs are not apparent of any breakthrough in Tehran-Washington relations.

Iran's Supreme Leader further told Abe he does not consider US President Donald Trump "worthy" of exchanging messages with, in a rare televised meeting on Iranian state television, AFP said.

"At the moment, tension is rising," Abe told reporters in Tehran, according to AP. "We should do anything we can to prevent an accidental conflict from happening and Iran should play its constructive role." Warning of the risk of "an accidental conflict," he said fighting should be avoided, "at all costs."

Speaking at the same press conference, Iranian President Rouhani did not back down. He reiterated a warning that Iran would offer a "crushing" response to any US attack.

[Source: By Andrew Salmon and Alison Meuse, Asia Times, Bankok, 13Jun19]

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