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Italy's Renzi, First Western Leader In Post-Sanctions Iran

Matteo Renzi and Hassan Rouhani filmed on Iranian TV on Tuesday
Matteo Renzi and Hassan Rouhani filmed on Iranian TV on Tuesday

TEHRAN — Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's diplomatic visit to Tehran this week, the first by a Western leader since the Iranian nuclear deal, is seen back in Italy mostly as a smart business trip.

The focus of the two-day trip, which concludes Wednesday, has been in opening up trade between the two countries, after the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran after it had agreed last year to roll back its nuclear activities as part of a deal reached with the U.S., China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany.

Rome-based daily La Repubblica quoted Renzi as saying that in addition to commercial connections, "Iran and Italy are two great cultural powers, each with a great history, that want to create a great future together." He also said it would be important for the West to involve Iran in fighting against ISIS.

The allusions to cultural links may recall a widely-publicized kerfuffle in January, when Italian officials draped sheets over nude statues in Rome's Capitoline Museum ahead of Rouhani's visit with Renzi.

There was fresh criticism this week, too: Writing for Il Fatto Quotidiano, Middle East correspondent Tiziana Ciavardini acknowledged the economic opportunity for Italy, but took Renzi to task for avoiding the topic of human rights in Iran, including the continued high number of executions.

"That the Italian government does its part to incentivize bilateral relations between the two countries is certainly a positive step. If Italy needs to invest, then a country experiencing an economic upswing — assuming that's the case for Iran — is a welcome partner. But we're sure that some themes… will never be addressed," she writes. "I would have liked to see in Prime Minister Renzi the same tenacity that he exhibited in 2009."

Back then, Renzi was the up-and-coming mayor of Florence, which also happened to be a sister city to Isfahan in Iran. In a gesture of solidarity with young Iranians protesting against the alleged rigging of the 2009 national elections, Renzi draped a green flag, symbolic of the fight for democracy in Iran, over the facade of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's historic city hall. Such democratic impulses in Italy were a far cry from the statue-covering episode of 2016, and also clearly not on Renzi's mind as he inked business deals this week in Tehran.

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