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Italy cancels minister’s Iran visit

May 20, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on FT: May 20 2009
Italy on Wednesday cancelled at the last minute a flight to Iran by Franco Frattini, foreign minister, following strong objections from European capitals and Washington and a bid by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s hardline president, to make election propaganda out of his visit.

Italy’s foreign ministry said it called off the two-day trip because Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, who is campaigning for re-election next month, wanted to meet Mr Frattini in the city of Semnan where the Iranian president had just announced the successful launch of a medium-range missile capable of hitting Israel.

The Italian delegation was about to leave Rome but had not boarded its plane when the decision was made to cancel, one person present told the FT.

Mr Frattini, who would have been the most senior European government official to visit Iran since Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was elected in 2005, expressed his regret over a “lost opportunity” to discuss Iran’s role in stabilising Afghanistan and Pakistan.

European allies had expressed dismay that Italy was about to break with EU policy of shunning high-level contacts with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Calls were made to Rome on Tuesday when it was learned that Mr Frattini would set off the next day. Diplomats said David Miliband, UK secretary of state, tried to telephone Mr Frattini on Tuesday evening but it was not clear if they spoke. The Obama administration also made its concerns known at a lower level.

Mr Frattini had been warned that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad would try to exploit his visit for his election campaign, diplomats said, calling the last minute cancellation – which followed a postponement in March – a serious embarrassment for Rome.

Italy, as head of the Group of Eight industrialised nations this year, said it wanted to engage Iran ahead of a ministerial meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan it will host in Trieste next month, with the aim of bringing together Iran and the US for the first time.

Diplomats and commentators said they suspected Italy’s considerable oil and gas investments in Iran were also an important factor behind Mr Frattini’s mission.

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