Italy, Iran's Gateway to Renewed Interaction with Europe

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki

A recent two-day visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, who arrived in Tehran heading a high-ranking delegation on December 21, 2013, and her subsequent meetings with senior Iranian officials has been the most important development in the two countries’ relations during the past 10 years. The trip took place about a month after Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers reached an agreement over Iranian nuclear energy program in the Swiss city of Geneva. Therefore, many analysts believed that it was, in fact, an extension of the aforesaid nuclear talks. Before the trip, the Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta had held a “constructive” meeting with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the 68th United Nations General Assembly session in New York. Also, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had paid a visit to Italy on November 19, 2013, on his way to take part in nuclear talks in Geneva. His visit was carried out on the official invitation of his Italian counterpart. The exchange of official visits between the two countries’ officials is not limited to these instances. In August 2013, Lapo Pistelli, the Italian deputy foreign minister, paid a visit to Iran. Also, just a few days before Ms. Bonino’s travel to Tehran, the former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema paid a visit to Iran during which he also toured the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies.

To the above list should be added a meeting by the managing director of Italy’s multinational oil and gas company, Eni S.p.A., with the Iranian Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zanganeh in the Austrian capital city of Vienna on December 5, 2013. During her visit to Tehran, the Italian foreign minister announced that her visit would be followed by similar visits to Iran by her country’s culture minister as well as head of the Iranian Senate’s Foreign Policy Committee and a delegation comprising the representatives of the Italian industries. Before long, and on January 3, 2014, a five-member Italian parliamentary delegation headed by Chairman of the Italian Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee Pier Ferdinando Casini, and comprising four other members of the presiding board of that committee arrived in Tehran. To top this list, there have been serious reports circulating in domestic political circles of both countries about a forthcoming visit to the Islamic Republic by the Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who has been officially invited by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It is clear without any further explanation that such reciprocal visits indicate both countries’ determination to further cement their relations in all fields and also prove that Italy is trying to play a pioneering role among European countries in developing relations with Iran. The question, however, is why Italy is doing this?

Reasons behind recent developments in Iran-Italy relations

1. Presidential elections in Iran: Without a doubt, the results of the latest presidential elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran should be considered as the main impetus behind the recent developments in relations between Tehran and Rome. Out of 28 member states of the European Union, Italy was the first country to immediately send its deputy foreign minister, Lapo Pistelli, to Tehran following the election of [the new Iranian President] Dr. Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his election. At the same time, the Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, also felicitated Mr. Rouhani on his election win and expressed hope that the result of the elections would help to bring about further progress in the Islamic Republic of Iran's negotiations and interactions with the Western and European countries.

2. Nuclear agreement in Geneva: A review of Italy’s approach to Iran's nuclear energy program will show that this European country has consistently called for the resolution of the West’s nuclear standoff with Iran through a diplomatic solution. As a result, Italy’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue has been constantly positive with Rome believing that the nuclear contention is the main obstacle on the way of further expansion of relations between the two countries. It was for this reason that although Italy was not a party to nuclear talks in Geneva, Rome lent its support to diplomatic efforts aimed at reaching an agreement over Iran's nuclear issue. Consequently, Bonino’s Tehran visit less than a month after the conclusion of the recent nuclear agreement in Geneva, was one way or another, a sign of Italy’s satisfaction with and support for that agreement.

3. Realism and ignoring Israel’s pressures: During the past years, Israel has done its utmost to further isolate Iran within the international community in an effort to mount international pressures on the Islamic Republic. However, following the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president and adoption of a new diplomatic approach by his administration, new grounds have been made available for the reactivation of the existing potentials in the country’s foreign relations through negotiations and cordiality. There is no doubt that enormous diplomatic capacities and potentialities exist between Tehran and Rome of which the two countries can make the best use in order to develop their relations through political dialogue and negotiations. The emphasis put by Bonino before her visit to Iran by saying that negotiations with Tehran on such issues as the current situation in Syria and the country’s nuclear case were not detrimental to Israel in any way and were also an unavoidable necessity, proved that the Italian government has decided to make political decisions independent of Israel’s pressures. As put by the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, taking such a realistic approach by Italy to relations with Iran will provide good grounds for further development of all-out relations at bilateral, regional and international levels.

4. Importance and regional position of Iran: During the new Christian year, the government of Afghanistan is supposed to take charge of the security and stability of the country following withdrawal of foreign troops. At the same time, despite striking victories by the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad in various fronts, the armed conflicts are still raging across the Arab country. In view of such important regional developments, the type of role that Iran will continue to play in the face of these fateful developments will have a crucial impact on the situation in both countries. It is for this reason that, as put by Pier Ferdinando Casini, the chairman of the Italian Senate’s Foreign Policy Committee, Iran has been always part of solutions that have led to the best possible results. The close views that Iran and Italy have on the aforesaid developments have helped both countries to converge on such issues as cooperation in fighting smuggling of illicit drugs as well as reining terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan while joining hands in helping further progress and welfare of the war-torn country. Tehran and Rome have even signed an agreement in this regard calling for the continuation of cooperation in the above fields. As for the ongoing crisis in Syria, Italy has always believed in a political solution to the Syria crisis. As a result, Rome has consistently argued that Iran should play a decisive role in resolving the Syria crisis and play its constructive role in finding a basic solution to the ongoing crisis in the Arab country. This is why the Italian foreign minister has been calling for active presence of Iran in the forthcoming international conference on the Syria crisis, known as Geneva 2 Conference, which has been scheduled by the UN to be held in the Swiss city of Geneva on January 22, 2014.

5. Economic motivations: In addition to having abundant oil and gas resources, Iran is also considered an attractive consumer market by various European countries, including Italy. Iran has a young, job-seeking population and there are many developmental projects in the country which need investment. At the same time, renovation of the country’s infrastructure requires modern technologies, which can be provided to Iran by the European countries. On the other hand, international sanctions against Iran are being gradually lifted and there is a positive outlook for total removal of sanctions against the country. As a result, the future will be teeming with good opportunities for investment, especially for companies active in such economic sectors as oil and gas industries, roads and construction, mechanical industries, automobile manufacture, pharmaceuticals and so forth, and Italy is not willing to lose such opportunities. For Italy, economic considerations are of the highest value and are by no means a marginal issue. At the moment, Italian economy and industries are going through dire straits and the Italian government’s financial liabilities amount to billions of euros. As a result, conclusion of big contracts with various economic sectors in Iran will be a way out of the current economic crisis for the government in Rome. For this reason, the Italian foreign minister, who is already aware of the competition among European countries for improving their relations with Iran, believes that it would be a great gain for Italy if it could outdo other European states in this regard.

Italy, a gateway to Iran's interaction with Europe

As put by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Italy has played the role of an important partner for the Islamic Republic of Iran and has so far served as a gateway through which Iran has been interacting with the rest of the European countries. The fact that Italy has, under no circumstances, cut its economic, political and cultural relations with Iran is good evidence in this regard. As put by Paolo Scaroni, the managing director of Italy’s multinational oil and gas company, Eni S.p.A., the company has been operating in Iran since 1955 and has never completely left the country even under unfavorable conditions that existed in the past years.

The approach taken by Italy to Iran's nuclear energy program has been also of great assistance in helping the standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear issue to reach a conclusive result through a win-win game. Italy has been calling for an agreement which would guarantee Iran's right to take peaceful advantage of nuclear energy while assuring the Western countries about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities. Italy firmly believes that the semi-open window of opportunity for achieving such an agreement with Iran will not remain open forever. Therefore, Rome argues that taking a diplomatic approach to Iran's nuclear issue is a real “opportunity,” which should not be easily squandered. As put by the Italian Foreign Minister Bonino, the West should not repeat its past mistake by losing this opportunity, just in the same way that it lost a similar opportunity under the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Therefore, all the European countries should share the information they have on Iran in a bid to keep the window of opportunity for the improvement of relations open. Without a doubt, her words will have a great impact by increasing the awareness among the European countries about new opening in relations with the Islamic Republic and will further help to build confidence among the two sides as a prelude to finding a win-win solution to the existing problems.

The support that the Italian government has lent to a new plan proposed to the UN by the Iranian president for having a “world against violence and extremism,” has greatly helped to thwart efforts made to promote Iranophobia in Europe. On the other hand, as put by President Rouhani, increased interactions between the two countries can lay the groundwork for building mutual confidence with the European countries which, in turn, will help to strengthen a mutual atmosphere of friendship and cooperation between Iran and Europe.


A cursory review of the above developments will clearly prove that Iran and Italy have vast grounds for further bolstering of cooperation at bilateral, regional and international levels. Reducing tensions in Iran's relations with Europe combined with a similar decrease in the existing tensions over Iran's nuclear issue at international level will provide such political players as Italy with an opportunity to desecuritize various issues and find wider space for political maneuvering at a global level. Italy, along with Spain and France, considers itself responsible for the promotion of the European Union’s neighborhood policy along the southern borders of the continent, especially in the Middle East. At the same time, Rome is well aware that Iran enjoys huge and numerous capacities in all political, economic and trade areas and can be a powerful partner for the European states.

They are all aware that establishment of sustainable peace, stability and security in the restive Middle East region will not be possible without Iran playing its effective role in this regard. Therefore, Rome hopes that by promoting Iran's interactions with Europe, it would be able to expand cooperation with Tehran over various regional issues. The diplomatic approach adopted by Rouhani’s administration has provided necessary space for the improvement of relations between Iran and Europe. As a result, it would be advisable for the European states to listen to the Italian prime minister when he says betting on the success of Rouhani’s administration would be beneficial for all the European countries.

*Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki is the director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute and analyst of EU and NATO affairs.

Key Words: Italy, Iran, Interaction with Europe, Emma Bonino, Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Presidential Elections, Nuclear Agreement, Israel, Economic Motivations, Iranophobia, Ahmadi Lafuraki

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*Photo Credit: Press TV & IRNA