Prague, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's President Mohammad Khatami is using his milestone trip to Rome this week to promote a new image of the Islamic Republic as a moderate state ready for dialogue and partnership with the West.
Since arriving yesterday on a three-day visit, Khatami has said that Iran is prepared to work with Italy on a whole range of important international issues. At a welcoming banquet hosted by Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro last night, the Iranian President declared that Iran and Italy can cooperate in opposing all forms of violence --aggression, terrorism, discrimination and the spread of nuclear and other mass-destruction weapons. Khatami also said he had come to Italy to make bilateral "relations a symbol and pattern for friendship between East and West and Islam and Christianity."
These statements appear to signal that Khatami is determined to make the most of his first trip to the West in order to launch what he has previously called a "dialogue of civilizations" that would end the 20-year-long isolation of Iran after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. His visit is the first by an Iranian head of state to a Western capital since the revolution, and represents a total break with a past during which his predecessors routinely called for confronting the West and castigated its institutions.
Analysts say that Khatami has three goals in reaching out to Italy and, through it, to the European Union. They are to end his country's international isolation, to boost trade, and to win foreign support for his own reformist policies at home.
Italy, a major trading partner and buyer of Iranian oil, is giving all three initiatives warm encouragement. Last night, President Scalfaro praised Khatami for what he called the direction the moderate cleric had given to his country's policies and to the relations Iran intends to have with other nations. Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said that Italy will stress to Khatami Western concerns over abuses of human rights and democracy in the Islamic Republic but, he added, it is in everyone's interest to support modernization in Iran. Khatami was due to meet with Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema today.
The reaching out by both sides underlines the importance that Khatami and Italian leaders attach to the rapidly warming ties between them. That warming, which accelerated last year with a visit to Iran by the Italian foreign minister, comes as the U.S. continues to maintain a trade embargo against Tehran, which it accuses of supporting terrorism.
Suffering from low production and high unemployment, Iran is increasingly looking to foreign investment to help revive its economy after years of rejecting foreign influence. Khatami hopes his ground-breaking state visit will improve his government's credibility and help attract both trade and loans.
Italy is interested in Iran's huge oil and gas resources, and wants to sell it more food, agricultural products and pharmaceuticals. Hundreds of Italian companies already do business with Iran, and last week Italy's ENI and France's Gulf-Aquitaine signed a $540 million oil deal with Tehran to develop a northern Gulf oil field. The official Iranian news agency IRNA has said that the current volume of trade between Iran and Italy is around $2 billion a year.
Analysts say that Khatami's reaching out to Italy is likely to attain an emotional high point when he concludes his state visit tomorrow with a meeting with Pope John Paul in Vatican City. Marius Deeb, an expert in Islamic culture and politics at Johns Hopkins University near Washington, D.C., says that Khatami believes that dialogue with the Pope is essential for ending years of mistrust between Western states and Iran.
"The Iranians look at the world from their own angle and they think that the Pope has more influence than he actually does, because they look at the world as one where clergymen are [as] important as they are in Iran. [So] they think a visit to the Pope will change policies in Europe towards them."
The Vatican has released no details of the agenda of the talks. But correspondents say that the Roman Catholic Church also sees the meeting as an event of exceptional importance and as a confirmation of the Pope's desire for dialogue with Islam. The Pope is expected to press Khatami to allow Iran's small Christian community more freedom as well as to criticize Iran's record on human rights.
The U.S. is watching the Iranian leader's visit to Italy closely, but has not criticized it. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said yesterday that the U.S. goal is to support Iran's reintegration into the international community, but Tehran must first change policies that, he said, support terrorism and seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Rubin also said Washington expects Italian government leaders to express these same concerns to Khatami. The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian revolutionaries took U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979, and has never restored them.
Iranian opposition groups and their Italian supporters today are demonstrating in Rome against Khatami's visit. News reports say that at least 3,000 people protested his visit to the Italian parliament, accusing Khatami of being a front-man for an autocratic regime.
The Iranian President is scheduled to continue his drive to build closer ties to Western Europe with a state visit to France in early April.