When in Rome: Why Iran is prioritising Italy

Iran is making Italy its top priority trying to build on long-standing Italo-Iranian ties

This article was originally written in advance of President Rouhani's trip to Europe in November which had to be postponed due to the Paris Attacks. He is now due to visit Italy on 25 January followed by France on 27th January

President Hassan Rouhani will make an official state visit to Italy and the Vatican this weekend – a first of its kind in over a decade. The political background, economic and cultural ties between the two countries underpin why Rouhani picked Rome as his starting destination for an outreach campaign in Europe.  

Italy has maintained active diplomatic channels with Tehran even in periods of heightened tensions between Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite the severity of EU and US sanctions that substantially reduced prospects of trade with Iran, Italian officials retained communication with Iranian counterparts on soft political issues, albeit just at low-level exchanges during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After the interim nuclear deal was agreed in 2013, Italy’s Emma Bonino became the first European foreign minister to visit Tehran since the tenure of President Mahmood Khatami. Bonino broke the taboo prohibiting direct high-level European engagement with Iran beyond the parameters of the nuclear dossier. This act signaled that under Rouhani’s leadership and with tangible progress on the nuclear file, Europeans could begin a more constructive discourse with Tehran.

After Bonino’s visit an influx of more than 17 EU foreign ministers travelled to Iran. The Ministers aimed to revive bilateral ties and in order to underscore that, for expanding political and economic relations, it would be paramount to reach a final nuclear deal. This culminated in separate visits by the French, UK and German foreign ministers to Tehran after they sealed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July.

In both her capacity as Italian foreign minister and later EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini strongly backed the nuclear negotiations. She also reiterated that a breakthrough in the talks could lead to a new chapter for Iran and the West going beyond non-proliferation issues. In the backdrop to the nuclear talks, discreet quasi-official dialogue over death penalty and human rights took place in Italy- such contact had virtually ceased to exist between Iran and Europe in recent times.

Relative to other EU capitals, Italy has greater political space to take bold measures regarding Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal. Other than some caution from Israel, Italy has not come under significant pressure against hosting Rouhani. For some other member states, there will have to be a careful balancing act between engaging with Iran and the interests of their traditional regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is opposed to rapprochement between the West and Iran.

An example of this balancing act can be seen in Rouhani’s visit to France, a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, the day after his Italy trip. While Rouhani is due to meet with President François Hollande, dignitaries and business executives in Paris, as a matter of protocol this is not a state visit. Rather, the high-level meetings will take place on the sidelines to the UNESCO general assembly in Paris where Rouhani is due to present a keynote address. This arrangement also partly reflects the strained diplomatic relations between Iran and France, which often took the toughest stance in the nuclear talks.

Economic interests play a large role in driving Italian-Iranian ties, as they do for most EU capitals. Before the UN sanctions were imposed, Germany and Italy competed for ranking as Iran’s top trading partner. Italy’s energy companies made considerable investments inside Iran and they largely took the brunt of the sanctions regime. Unsurprisingly, in advance of the JCPOA’s sanctions easing the Italian private sector has re-established contact with its vast business networks inside Iran.

When in Rome, Rouhani will meet with top executives of Italian corporations to discuss future trade prospects (he will do the same during his visit to France). At the end of this month, a trade mission of more than 300 Italian companies will visit Tehran and are likely to sign a number of memoranda of understanding positioning them in a competitive position for when sanctions are eased.

Italy and Iran also share cultural similarities that can often ease the process of contentious political and economic negotiations. People-to-people diplomacy has been promoted by both sides particularly across academia, the arts and inter-faith initiatives. During his meetings at the Vatican, Rouhani is likely to outline his appreciation for the Pope’s strong backing to the nuclear deal and his promotion of Islamic-Christian dialogues.

Through his visit to Italy, Rouhani is retracing a similar route to the one Iran took to break out of its isolation with the West during Khatami. In 1999, Khatami accepted an invitation to Rome as the first official state visit to the West by an Iranian Leader since the 1979 revolution. Rouhani’s trip to Italy is likely to instigate a bigger push for improved relations between Iran and Europe.  It will also trigger a boost to his constituency at home that are eager to have Iran further distanced from its pariah status. This will be important in advance of Iran’s upcoming elections for its parliament and the Assembly of Experts in February.

So long as there is continued progress in the implementation of the nuclear deal, Rouhani is likely to be invited to more European capitals in the near future. This marks a shift in Europe’s stance on Iran away from a policy of containment towards engagement. Intensified and non-nuclear centric dialogue between Iran and Europe will be critical not only in areas of shared interests, but also on contentious matters that are imposing grave costs for both sides, such as how best to de-escalate and avoid a contagion of conflicts in the Middle East.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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