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As ties thaw, Rouhani in historic visit to Europe

The Levant News–

Hassan Rouhani heads to Italy and France from Saturday for the first visit of an Iranian leader to Europe in a decade, as ties thaw after Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

In Rome Saturday and Sunday, Rouhani will meet Italian officials and Pope Francis, while Monday and Tuesday he will visit Paris and see President Francois Hollande.

On the agenda will be potential business deals – as Iran opens up to the global economy after the historic July nuclear agreement – and talks on regional issues including the conflict in Syria.

The last visit to Europe by an Iranian leader was in 2005, when Mohammad Khatami, like Rouhani a reformist, traveled to Vienna and Paris. Khatami’s first trip to Europe was in 1999, the first visit of an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution. He also held talks at the Vatican, meeting then pontiff John Paul II.

The choices of France and Italy for both visits are hardly surprising – before sanctions were imposed on Iran in 2006 over its nuclear program, the two countries were the oil-and-gas-rich nation’s main European economic partners.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni were among the first Western officials to visit Tehran over the summer, bringing the invitations for Rouhani’s European trip.

In an interview with France 2 public television Wednesday, Rouhani said he expected to sign a number of documents that would “form the basis for industrial and commercial agreements.”

Among them, he said, would “probably” be a move to buy Airbus aircraft to renew Iran’s aging fleet.

Fabius was followed in Iran in September by a delegation of some 150 French business leaders seeking opportunities. Some – like automakers Peugeot Citroen and Renault or oil giant Total, all long present in Iran – want to restart operations in the country which were reduced under the sanctions.

In Paris, Rouhani will speak Monday at U.N. cultural and science agency UNESCO, before meeting Hollande Tuesday for talks on Syria and bilateral cooperation.

Iran, with Russia, is the main supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, providing it with financial and military aid, including with military advisers on the ground.

Arab and Western countries including France have backed Assad’s opponents, insisting the Syrian leader must go for there to be any hope of ending the civil war that has left more than 250,000 dead since March 2011.

After initially being frozen out of diplomatic talks on the Syrian crisis, Iran for the first time joined an international meeting on the conflict in late October in Vienna. It will take part in another round in the Austrian capital Saturday.

In his interview with French television, Rouhani insisted Syria needs a strong government and said the focus should not just be on Assad.

It is “not a question of a person, it is a question of security and stability,” he said.

“We must first of all, in Syria, eradicate terrorism. It is the first priority.”

During the Rome visit, Pope Francis is expected to ask Rouhani to use his country’s influence on Assad to push for a democratic transition.

Hollande will host Rouhani at the Elysée Palace but French media reported this week that plans for an official dinner had been canceled after Iran insisted it had to be alcohol-free.

An Iranian diplomat said that “in accordance with Islamic values and teachings,” Iranian leaders never attend events where alcohol is served. Sixteen years ago Khatami had also refused to attend a reception at the Elysée where wine was on the table.

In an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Rouhani suggested that the United States and the Islamic Republic could open embassies in each other’s capitals after decades of mutual hostility, but said Washington should apologize for past behavior, without going into further detail.

“One day these embassies will re-open but what counts is behavior and the Americans hold the key to this,” Rouhani told the newspaper ahead of a trip to Italy this weekend, his first to a European capital.

“If they modify their policies, correct errors committed in these 37 years and apologize to the Iranian people, the situation will change and good things can happen.”

Rouhani said Washington would have to fulfill its part in the significant nuclear accord for relations to improve. The U.S. approved conditional sanctions waivers for Iran, though these will not take effect until Tehran has complied with the nuclear accord.

Source: The Daily Star, Lebanon.

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