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Economy

Iran's Rouhani in Italy, France for first post-sanctions EU trip

media Iran's President Hassan Rouhani meets Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome, 25 January 2016. Reuters/Tony Gentile

Before arriving in France this week to sign business deals and repair a sometimes tense relationship, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is in Italy, the first stop in his first visit to Europe after the lifting of international sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme last week.

Rouhani is travelling with a delegation of over 100, including ministers, officials and business leaders, with hopes to close trade deals with European partners with whom Iran had been barred from doing business.

His visit to France is will have to repair ties and build trust.

France took a hard line against Iran during the nuclear negotiations and it has been outspoken against Iran’s support for the Syrian regime.

But on a business front, France has been aggressively courting Iran, sending business delegations to Tehran over the last several months in anticipation of the nuclear deal yielding positive results.

The French auto industry stands to gain in opening trade with Iran, as will the Franco-German company Airbus. Iran already announced it will buy 114 Airbus planes to upgrade Iran Air’s fleet.

Italy was not involved in the nuclear talks and has maintained cordial relations with Iran.

Rouzbeh Parsi, the director of the European Iran Research Group at Lund University, says there are several reasons for this.

“These things are not about ideology. It’s more about the fact that Italy imported oil from Iran and wanted to maintain that as long as possible,” he told RFI.

Indeed, Italy was Iran’s biggest European trading partner until a decade ago. And the Italian oil company Eni was one of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil before the sanctions.

But Parsi says there is also a personal affinity between Iranians and Italians.

“The interactions of Italians and Iranians that I’ve seen and talked to, they seem to get along,” he said. “Obviously this is anecdotal, and not something you can build a policy on. But there seems to be something to it. “

Italian companies are expected to sign deals with Iran worth up to 17 billion euros.

Before moving on to Paris, Rouhani is meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. This was a visit planned for mid-November but postponed after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Parsi says the visit to the Vatican makes sense, given that Iran defines itself as a theocracy.

“To a certain degree, the Vatican and Iran have seen eye to eye in terms of religion and cultural conservatism in general,” he said.

Pope Francis has been vocal about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, many of whom have been killed or displaced by the Islamic State armed group.

The Pope is expected to remind Rouhani about this and to encourage him to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, to try to improve the situation in the region.

While the nuclear deal hinged a lot on Iran’s negotiating with the United States, most US sanctions remain in place, notably banking restrictions.

Europe, therefore, will be key to moving forward.

“The relationship that can realistically be built and produce dividends for all sides involved is the European-Iranian one,” said Parsi. “[The Europeans] are the one who are willing; they’re the ones who remember what it was like, because the Americans haven’t been trading with Iran for 35 years. The European-Iranian relationship is going to be the lynchpin of this development.”

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