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Iran's Rouhani welcomes Japan opting out of US-led naval mission in Gulf

President says his discussions in Japan included ways of 'breaking' US sanctions
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before a meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Friday (AFP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday welcomed Japan's decision not to join a US-led naval mission in the Gulf and said he had discussions during a trip to Tokyo about ways of "breaking" US sanctions.

Friction between Tehran and Washington has increased since last year, when US President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with six nations and re-imposed sanctions on the country, crippling its economy.

Washington proposed the naval mission after several attacks in May and June on international merchant vessels in Gulf waters that the United States blamed on Iran. Tehran denies the accusations, Reuters said.

"Japan has announced it will not take part in the Americans' plans for security in the region... which is something we welcome," Rouhani said on state TV after returning from a visit to Japan.

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"Japan is sending a surveillance vessel, but not to the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz," he said.

Rouhani said his discussions in Japan included ways of "breaking" the US sanctions.

"On breaking the sanctions, the Japanese had a new proposal and we also had a new proposal and we discussed this and it was decided to continue the consultations between the two countries on this issue," Rouhani said, without giving details.

Following his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Rouhani tweeted on Friday: "I welcome any effort that could boost economic exchanges, especially in the energy sector, and increase oil exports."

A Japanese official who gave a briefing to reporters said crude oil purchases were not discussed at the summit meeting. Japan was a leading buyer of Iranian oil for decades before the US-led sanctions.

Abe on Saturday also discussed events in Iran with Trump in a lengthy phone call, the Kyodo news agency reported.

Japan is a key US ally that also maintains close diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, and Abe has tried to build bridges between the two rivals, AFP said.

Abe did not refer to Iran when he met with reporters just before midnight on Saturday, but a Japanese government source told Kyodo that Abe did talk to Trump about his discussions with Rouhani.

The Abe-Trump phone call lasted about 75 minutes, according to Kyodo.

Japan is looking to launch its own naval operation rather than joining the US-led mission to protect shipping in the region.

The planned Japanese operation is set to cover high seas in the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but not the Strait of Hormuz.

According to a draft plan approved by parties in the ruling coalition, Japan will deploy a destroyer and a patrol aircraft for gathering information in the Gulf region, which has been the source of almost 90 percent of Japan's crude oil imports.

A European operation to ensure safe shipping in the Gulf will get underway next month when a French warship starts patrolling there. The French government has pushed for a European security alternative after also ruling out taking part in the US-led mission.