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Deals, Protests, Diplomacy to Mark Rouhani’s European Visit

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in Tehran after returning from the annual United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 29, 2015.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in Tehran after returning from the annual United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 29, 2015.

President Hassan Rouhani is turning a new page in Iran’s relations with Europe, with a four-day visit to Italy, the Vatican and France aimed at boosting business and diplomatic ties after years of crippling international sanctions.

The first Iranian president to visit Europe in more than a decade, Rouhani meets with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Saturday, and holds talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican. He arrives Sunday afternoon in Paris, where he will speak at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on Monday, and hold talks with French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday.

Also planned are meetings with French and Italian companies eager to capture a piece of Iran’s market, following July’s landmark agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

“Mr. Rouhani is going to Europe to say, ‘We Iranians are ready to do business with you,’” said analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. “He wants to show that Iran is becoming more open, that it is ready and willing to talk with anybody, even with tough countries.”

Commercial ties

Rouhani’s choice of France and Italy makes sense, analysts said, given Iran’s long-standing commercial ties with both countries. Still, the Iranian leader may face rocky moments in coming days. In Italy, senators are urging the leftist government to put human rights before economic considerations, a message that is being echoed by rights activists in France.

“Expectations cannot be very high,” Moreau Defarges said of Rouhani’s Paris leg. “I think France would like to check the Iranian line concerning the Islamic State (terrorist group). Secondly, maybe it would like to check whether Iran is sincere concerning its nuclear program.”

“That’s why business will really have the first seat,” he added. “That’s where France can hope to show some practical results.”

Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at London-based Chatham House, says she believes Rouhani’s trip may help ease bilateral tensions.

“It’s an opportunity to have some important conversations, to try to air differences, to get closer to each other’s points of view and make some compromises,” she said.

Rouhani’s visit to France is particularly significant, given the history and complexity of French-Iranian relations. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spent part of his exile near Paris, before returning to found the Islamic republic. Many refugees from Iran’s 1979 revolution also found shelter here. That included Maryam Rajavi, leader of the opposition People's Mujahedeen of Iran, which is based in the small French town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

“Traditionally, Iran and France had very close relations, and traditionally French diplomacy has been very realistic, very pragmatic,” Moreau Defarges said. “But now under [French Foreign Minister Laurent] Fabius and Mr. Hollande, France is taking a much different line. And that may be a big problem for French businesses.”

Manufacturing, agriculture and aviation

In an interview with French media before leaving Tehran, Rouhani signaled areas like car manufacturing, agriculture and aviation “that will form the basis of our commercial agreements” with France.

Noting several major French companies were already present in Iran, including aircraft maker Airbus, he added, “we will buy from these big companies, notably Airbus.”

Airbus was among more than 100 leading French companies to visit Iran in September. With international sanctions against Iran reportedly set to be lifted in early 2016 — if Tehran meets its nuclear obligations — executives are eyeing new opportunities in a country of 80 million people. In October, Reuters reported that France’s Sephora beauty company plans to open several shops in Iran next year.

“When the Iranians say Iran is open to business, it’s open to business in every sector, in every way,” analyst Vakil said.

Still, leading French banks, including Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas, did not take part in the business trip, underscoring a lingering hesitancy about the risks. Both banks have been fined for violating U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

Many other investing roadblocks can be traced to France’s own diplomacy, analyst Moreau Defarges says. Not only did Hollande’s government adopt one of the toughest Western stances on Iran’s nuclear program, but it struck an equally tough tone by insisting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — who counts Iran among his biggest champions — must go.

Comical twist

Diplomatic tensions have even taken a comical twist, with reports the Elysee presidential palace canceled a meal planned between Rouhani and Hollande over Iranian demands that only Halal meat and no wine could be served.

Still, rather than hardening its ideological stance, Vakil believes France and Europe more broadly have realized the limits of being too rigid.

“There’s a belief in Europe that isolating Iran hasn’t effectively changed Iran’s behavior, “ she said. “Sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table; but actually involving Iran in regional events and bringing them into discussions is probably going to be more productive.”

Not surprisingly, Rouhani’s visit has drawn sharp criticism from a number of civil society groups in France. A joint statement by several human rights organizations called on Hollande to address Iran’s shaky rights record during talks with Rouhani.

For its part, France’s prominent Jewish association CRIF has criticized Rouhani’s declaration to French media on Wednesday that “Israel is not a legitimate state.”

“His official trip to France, which is questionable in principle, is an insult to the Jews of France and to all those who defend the values of democracy,” CRIF said in a statement.

Several demonstrations are planned on Sunday, including at least two supported by Iranian dissident groups. “We’re not happy that everything should be brushed aside just for economic considerations,” said women’s rights activist Irene Ansari, who counts among France’s sizable Iranian diaspora.

Meanwhile, Rouhani faces a different kind of opposition, from hardliners back home.

“This is a very important trip for Rouhani,” Vakil says. “This is Iran’s chance to show to the international community that it has the potential to change, but it’s going to be a gradual change. Putting on a good show is very important for Rouhani.”