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Italy to break EU ranks with Iran visit

May 19, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on the Financial Times:  May 19 2009

Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, plans to break with European Union policy of shunning high-level contact with Iran by flying to Tehran on Wednesday for talks on the Islamic republic’s strategic role in the region and possible openings for direct engagement with the US.

Because of strong opposition from European allies, diplomats said Mr Frattini had wanted to keep his visit a “surprise” by announcing it only on his arrival.

Italy did not mention his plans during an EU ministerial meeting on Tuesday that included extensive discussions on Iran.

The Italian foreign ministry at first denied the trip to Tehran was planned, telling the Financial Times: “Nothing has been decided yet.” Ansa, an Italian news agency, soon after quoted it as confirming the visit would take place.

Mr Frattini will be the most senior official from a European government to visit Iran in the four years since Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was elected president.

Western diplomats expressed dismay that Mr Frattini intended to break EU ranks. They also said that Washington had not given Rome a “green light”. Allies have warned Mr Frattini that he risks handing a propaganda victory to Iran’s hardline president less than a month before he stands for re-election.

EU governments had agreed to shun Iran because of its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment programme in line with United Nations resolutions. The decision to keep contacts limited to Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief who last visited Tehran a year ago, was reinforced by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s rhetorical attacks on Israel.

One diplomat said Mr Frattini was under pressure from the Iranians to meet the president on Thursday. Rome wants talks to be restricted to Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister.

Italy’s declared purpose in sending Mr Frattini is to prepare the ground for a regional conference on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Italy plans to host on June 25 as this year’s head of the Group of Eight industrialised nations.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, wants to provide the venue for the first meeting between Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, and Mr Mottaki.

Italy has long chafed at being kept out of the EU circle of decision-making over Iran, dominated by the “EU3” of the UK, France and Germany.

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