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Red-Wine Lines: French Impasse Highlights Iranian Envoys' No-No's

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian President Hassan Rohani won't be asking to see the wine list at any state functions he attends on his trip to Europe, nor will he be shaking hands with any women.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani won't be asking to see the wine list at any state functions he attends on his trip to Europe, nor will he be shaking hands with any women.

French and Iranian officials have abandoned a plan to break bread next week when Iran's president comes to Paris as part of a European tour aimed at reengaging diplomatically and perhaps economically.

Specifically, the two sides reportedly nixed the idea of a state dinner for Hassan Rohani after Tehran requested that the French avoid serving wine at the function and ensure that the meat is halal, or prepared according to strict Islamic standards. A counteroffer from the avidly secular French to make it a breakfast meeting was said to have been dismissed by the Iranians as excessively "cheap."

The rest of Rohani's official visit -- which comes on the heels of a landmark nuclear deal that could thaw decades of frosty relations -- will go ahead.

It was unclear whether Rohani's team was running into a similar problem on the first leg of his European tour, in Rome, where Italians' fondness for wine has trumped diplomacy before.

But there have been notable instances in the past when cultural constraints that the Islamic Republic of Iran places on its officials practicing statecraft abroad have caused friction.

And they are not limited to meals. Some of the other prohibitions that Iranian envoys must follow on state visits include no handshakes between men and women and a no female dancing.

Afternoon Tea

Drinking alcohol and physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex are also banned domestically.

An unnamed official in charge of protocol at Iran's Foreign Ministry told the ISNA news agency on November 11 that "according to Islamic values and teachings, Iranian officials do not attend banquets where alcohol is served."

In October 1999, a trip to France by the Iranian president at the time, reformist Mohammad Khatami, was postponed after he refused to attend a reception at the Elysee Palace because his request for alcohol-free meals was rejected.

Khatami visited France several months later, when his French counterpart Jacques Chirac invited him for afternoon tea.

In 2002, Spain canceled a state banquet in honor of Khatami after Tehran insisted on the alcohol ban.

A former deputy head of mission at Iran's embassy in Finland, Hossein Alizadeh, says such rules and sensitivities are transmitted and coordinated with host countries through the Foreign Ministry's office of protocol. In the case of diplomats, he says, the rules are transmitted via embassies.

"For example, authorities are reminded that [male Iranian officials] don't shake hands with women so that women [attending events with Iranian officials] don't try to shake hands and feel embarrassed [when the gesture is not reciprocated]."

Instead of shaking hands with the opposite sex, Iranian diplomats often bow or clutch their hands close to their chests.

'Nonsensical Law'

Alizadeh, who resigned from his post and sought political asylum following the 2009 presidential election and crackdown, says that, during his time as a diplomat, he would shake hand with women when he felt it was safe -- meaning no one was around to report back to Tehran and create problems.

He says he didn't want to go to great lengths to explain why he wouldn't shake hands with women due to a "nonsensical law."

"[Diplomats] often apologize and say that they don't shake hands with women, then try to explain by saying that they respect women and that they don't mean to insult anyone, and so on. In practice, we would see that many women become offended."

Perhaps that's why Khatami decided to shake the hands of several women who approached him during a visit to the Italian city of Udine in 2007. A video and pictures of the handshakes with women who greeted the former president after a speech brought him trouble.

Hard-liners said he should have been defrocked for endangering Islam.

Khatami's office dismissed the photos as tampered-with and denied any handshakes had taken place.

For hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2013, it was a sympathetic hug that prompted an avalanche of criticism.

Ahmadinejad consoled and embraced the 78-year-old mother of his deceased friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at the funeral, pictures of the event released by news agencies showed.

Hard-liners condemned Ahmadinejad's behavior and said he had violated Islamic norms. Again, presidential aides claimed the pictures had been photoshopped.

In 2006, Ahmadinejad was criticized for another perceived faux pas. He was said to have attended a ceremony at the Asian Games in Qatar that included women singing and dancing, The Guardian reported.

Conservatives questioned why he had attended an event where Islamic laws had been violated. Ahmadinejad's aides maintained that he was not present during the performance.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at