Italy to join ‘very firm’ approach on Iran
By Guy Dinmore in Rome
Published: May 15 2008
Italy’s new centre-right government is prepared to join the US and big European powers in taking a tough line on Iran but wants to be let into “the club” deciding on sanctions. Franco Frattini, foreign minister, told the Financial Times in an interview that the new government of Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, would be closer to Israel and harder on Iran than its centre-left predecessor under Romano Prodi.
At the same time Italy, which has struggled among the G8 powers to make its voice heard on the international scene, wants to leverage its close commercial ties with Iran. Mr Frattini criticised Massimo D’Alema, his predecessor, for being “too late” in understanding the importance of gaining entry at the top table of the “P5 plus one” – the five permanent members of the UN security council and Germany, engaged in diplomacy with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.
“Now Italy will push forward to be really in the club on Iran,” he said. He plans to discuss this with Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, at the Paris donors conference on Afghanistan in June.
“Italy will not be left isolated by a restricted group of European partners plus the US,” added Mr Frattini, who held the foreign portfolio in an earlier Berlusconi administration.
He declined to be drawn on whether Italy would support specific sanctions against Iran’s energy sector.
The Italian government is the largest shareholder in Rome-based Eni, which is among the largest investors in Iran’s oil industry. However, he said that “much more than the former government”, Italy’s administration would join the “very firm” approach on Iran of the US, France, Germany and the UK.
Mr Frattini ruled out any dialogue with Hamas as proposed by his predecessor, as long as the Islamist Palestinian group was committed to violence against Israel.
However, he offered Italy’s help as a “facilitator” in widening the dialogue between the US and Iran, saying the international community needed to work towards transforming Iran from a “dangerous regional power” into a co-operative one.
Throughout the interview, Mr Frattini, who has just left his post at Brussels as European justice commissioner, stressed the importance of Italy working together with the EU, particularly on Iran and Lebanon, where Italy heads the multinational peacekeeping force with 3,000 troops.
Mr Frattini finds himself in a diverse cabinet, however, containing strong eurosceptics, including Giulio Tremonti, finance minister.
Mr Tremonti, in his latest book, also takes a dim view of China, which he sees as an expansionist power and a threat to Italy’s economy through the advance of globalism.
Mr Frattini, however, said he had no intention of needlessly provoking his “Chinese friends” by meeting the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, as Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, intends to do. Nonetheless, Mr Frattini expressed support for the Dalai Lama’s approach to autonomy for Tibet and said he opposed those in the EU seeking to lift the European arms embargo on China.