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ANSAMed - December 23, 2013

With her historic visit to Tehran, the first of its kind in almost ten years, Foreign Minister Emma Bonino has restored Italy's traditional role of paving the way for better relations between Europe and Iran. ''Italy has played the role of an important partner for the Islamic Republic, and has acted as a gateway for relations between Iran and Europe,'' President Hassan Rouhani said in meeting with Bonino, adding that relations with Rome had the potential to foster mutual trust between Tehran and the EU. Rouhani underscored that he would be willing to promote relations with Italy ''at the highest possible level'', and that the widening of bilateral relations should focus on long-term objectives with cooperation ''at all levels''. The first European foreign minister to visit Tehran after the new president took office, prior to her departure Bonino had taken on the task of getting a first-hand look at Iran's claims of opening up to the world through the new direction taken by Rouhani. The same sort of role had been played by Italy almost 15 years ago during the visit to Rome by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, the man who at the time had tried to open the Islamic Republic up to reform and dialogue with the West before the hardline stance seen during the eight years under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

That trip, in March 1999, was the first by an Iranian head of state to an EU nation after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This event was commemorated ''physically'' in Tehran this week by a visit by the Italian prime minister at that time, Massimo D'Alema. That welcome has not been forgotten in Iran. This is likely what Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was referring to when he said that Iranians have ''very good memories of relations with Italy''. Bonino's visit had been preceded by a visit to Tehran on August 7 by Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli, just two days after Rouhani was sworn in as winner of the June presidential elections. This move surprised European capitals, but - as Bonino noted last month - at the UN General Assembly in New York, there was "a longer line to speak to Rouhani than outside the MoMa". The task taken on by Italy seems difficult with uncertain results. On one hand is resistance - inside Iran but even more so within the US Congress - on the finalization of the Geneva provisional agreement on Iran's controversial nuclear program, while on the other is Iranian wariness rendered more acute by 34 years of an American "siege" against the Islamic Republic. The lingering tension was seen during an affair last year regarding Iranian diplomatic protests over the awarding of the Sakharov Prize by EU MPs to two high-profile Iranian dissidents, film director Jafar Panahi and the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who were unable to go to Strasbourg to accept the prize as they were under detention.

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