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Iranian president heading to Paris and Rome


Iranian president heading to Paris and Rome

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ROME – President Hassan Rouhani brings the case to Europe this week for Iran as a potential investment bonanza, after the lifting of financial sanctions brought his country of 80 million people back into the world of global commerce.

Rouhani, a pragmatist elected in 2013 on a platform to reduce Iran’s isolation, championed the deal under which Iran curbed its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of U.S., EU and United Nations sanctions this month.

On his first trip abroad since the accord took effect, he will lead a 120-strong delegation that includes Iranian entrepreneurs as well as the oil and gas minister and other government officials for five days in Paris and Rome. He will meet Pope Francis and French President Francois Hollande.

A week after nearly all sanctions were lifted, French and Italian officials still do not expect major deals to be signed yet during the trip. Rouhani himself has spoken of a “long road” to Iran’s economic integration with the world.

Nevertheless, Iran already demonstrated its hunger for Western goods at an aviation conference on the eve of the visit, announcing plans on Sunday to buy eight A-380 superjumbo jets from Airbus and eventually buy up to 100 planes from Boeing.

The visit also comes as global diplomats are trying to arrange the first peace talks in two years to end the Syrian civil war. Shi’ite Muslim Iran is the strongest ally of President Bashar al-Assad, while European countries back his mainly Sunni Muslim opponents. Recent months have also seen an increase in hostility between Iran and traditional Western ally Saudi Arabia.

“This is a very important visit,” said a senior Iranian official. “It’s time to turn the page and open the door to cooperation between our countries in different areas.”

The visit to France, the first by an Iranian president since 1999, will provide opportunities to smooth over particularly awkward relations with a country that has historically been comparatively friendly.

Paris took a hard line towards Iran among the six powers that were party to the nuclear negotiations, and has been outspoken in its condemnation of Iran’s support for Assad and sceptical of Tehran’s other Middle East interventions.

Without the same diplomatic constraints as France, Italian officials appear more upbeat. Italy has traditionally had close economic ties with Tehran and is rubbing its hands at the prospect of a possible surge in new contracts following the demise of the sanctions regime.

After speaking to business leaders, Rouhani will head to the Vatican for talks with Pope Francis. After the nuclear deal, the Pope said he hoped it would be the start of “a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world”.

The plight of Christians in the Middle East is likely to be discussed, as well as human rights. The Vatican strongly opposes executions, which have increased since Rouhani took office. (Reuters)