Dovish Trump says not targeting regime change in Iran

Natsuko FUKUE and Sebastian SMITH
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Trump and Abe have forged a close diplomatic relationship

Trump and Abe have forged a close diplomatic relationship (AFP Photo/Brendan SMIALOWSKI)

Tokyo (AFP) - The United States does not seek "regime change" in longtime foe Iran, President Donald Trump said Monday, also praising North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un in comments made during a historic visit to meet Japan's new emperor.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump seemed at pains to dial down tensions in the world's two most pressing flashpoints as the US faces off against Tehran and Pyongyang.

Iran "has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership. We're not looking for regime change, I want to make that clear. We're looking for no nuclear weapons," said the president, who became the first foreign leader invited to meet freshly crowned Emperor Naruhito, with a state visit and banquet.

"I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal. I think that's very smart of them and I think there's a possibility for that to happen also."

Trump had earlier opened the door to negotiations with Tehran, saying: "If they'd like to talk, we'd like to talk also."

The comments were in marked contrast to growing concerns in Washington about conflict after the administration dispatched an aircraft carrier, bomber planes and 1,500 extra troops to the region in response to alleged Iranian threats.

Trump has sought to dismantle an international agreement meant to reward Iran for opening its nuclear program to outside controls, instead adding crippling new US sanctions seen by many as aimed at bringing down the government.

- 'Tremendous economic potential' -

Addressing another hot-button issue, Trump doubled down on his backing for Kim despite two short-range missile tests that sparked renewed concern in the region after a period of relative calm.

Asked about the missile tests, Trump said: "My people think it could have been a violation... I view it as a man who perhaps wants to get attention."

This appeared to be a second put-down of his hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, who said Saturday the launches contravened UN Security Council resolutions.

Kim "is looking to create a nation that has great strength economically," said Trump, repeating his mantra there is "tremendous economic potential" in North Korea.

"He knows that with nuclear, that's never going to happen. Only bad can happen. He is a very smart man, he gets it well," said the president, who even said he agreed with the North Korean leader's jibe about the intelligence of Joe Biden, who currently leads the pack to win the Democratic nomination to take on Trump in 2020.

"Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low IQ individual. He probably is, based on his record, I think I agree with him on that," said the president.

For his part, Abe stated the launches were a violation of UN resolutions and reiterated Tokyo's stance that they were "very regrettable".

Abe said he had won Trump's blessing to hold face-to-face talks "without preconditions" with Kim in a bid to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea decades ago -- a burning domestic political issue.

- 'Great time' -

Trump said it was a "great honour" to be the first foreign leader visiting Naruhito.

In the morning, Trump and his wife Melania were greeted by the emperor and his wife Empress Masako at the palace in Tokyo, inspecting an honour guard and exchanging gifts.

They returned in the evening with Abe and his wife for a lavish banquet featuring six courses, including Trump's favourite -- beef -- and a dessert described as Glace Mont Fuji.

The emperor and Trump both made toasts praising their countries' friendship, the US president even sprinkling in a few Japanese words to his address, as he referenced ancient Japanese poetry.

Monday marked the start of the official programme after a weekend in which Trump and Abe strengthened their personal friendship with sumo, golf and meals out. Trump said Sunday he was having a "great time."

Abe was hoping that their diplomatic bromance would act to his advantage in delicate trade talks between the world's number-one and number-three economies.

This seemed to have had some effect, with Trump saying that "much" of that deal would wait until Abe faces upper house elections likely in July -- as rumours swirl that the popular prime minister will combine that vote with a snap general election.

On the even tougher trade negotiations with China, Trump suggested there was a "very good chance" for a "very good deal" with China. But he gave no timeline, saying it would come only "sometime" in the future.