ROME — There are a few things that Italians do better than anyone else in the world. One is rolling out the red carpet when special guests arrive. The other is selective memory. This is a country, of course, where even Benito Mussolini is oft-remembered for the supposed “good he did,” like getting the trains to run on time.
And so it was on Monday when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to Rome with his mostly male entourage of six ministers and 120 businessmen, to a welcome befitting a king and his court.
No one minded that his private Airbus 321 was 90 minutes late, since Rouhani—after so many years of sanctions—is suddenly repping a mountain of money just unfrozen by the nuclear agreement. He was bringing with him the promise of $18.4 billion in business deals that were, clearly, worth the wait.
Rouhani then stormed through the Eternal City with an impressive motorcade of 45 armored cars and eight motorcycles—considerably larger than that of U.S. President Barack Obama when he visited the city in 2014.
Rouhani began his official state visit with a working brunch with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential palace, where he was honored by Italy’s elite forces in their formal attire. Mattarella was flanked by Italy’s finance and foreign ministers. Rouhani brought his foreign minister along with his ministers of oil and industry.
“Italy is our door to Europe,” Iran’s ambassador to Italy, Jahanbakhsh Mozaffari, said ahead of Rouhani’s visit. It is clear Italians see it more like a yellow brick road lined with Persian gold.
Before American-led economic sanctions, Italy was Iran’s largest trading partner in Europe and it is clear that the country wants Iran’s business back. Among the deals on the table that Rouhani’s men are expected to sign during the official visit are a deal with $5 billion with oil pipeline company Saipem, a $5.7 billion deal with steel company Danieli, and a lucrative deal with Fiat Chrysler. There are smaller agreements in the works, too, like those with infrastructure company Gavio and ship builder Fincantieri. The list goes on.
Of course any future collaboration with Iran does come at a price.
Israel’s ambassador to Rome, Naor Gilon, warned that any business deals should be forged with a clear understanding between Rome and Rouhani that Iran must respect certain “values” and “boundaries” as part of these collaborations, especially on the eve of the Day of Memory of the Holocaust on Jan. 27.
“Iran has a long history of negationism [Holocaust denial] and each year during these days it organizes a competition to ridicule the Holocaust,” Gilon told ANSA news. “I find it difficult to think that the Italian authorities can’t find a way to express their disapproval.”
Amnesty International’s Italian president, Gianni Ruffini, also asked Renzi to raise concerns about Iran’s widespread use of the death penalty, “especially the thousands of executions carried out in 2015,” before signing any accords.
In a joint press conference between the two leaders on Monday night, Renzi brushed over the controversy, insisting the two had discussed more than just their mutually gratifying business arrangements. He assured the press that they would work together against ISIS and that “even in the areas where we have pronounced differences, such as human rights, we have demonstrated the ability to carry out dialogue and discussion.”
Rouhani, for his part, didn’t seem to blink an eye. “We Iranians feel very much at home in Italy,” Rouhani said. “Our journey in Europe began in Italy because we have an ancient friendship. We can work together in every sector.”
After business was finished, the Iranian entourage joined Renzi and 200 businessmen and businesswomen for a gala dinner held in the opulent Caffarelli Palace on the Capitoline hill overlooking the ancient Roman Forum, where the Italian delegation agreed to forgo serving wine at the dinner at the request of the Iranians.
On Tuesday, Rouhani will lead a joint Italian-Iranian business forum before dashing off to Vatican City for a private audience with Pope Francis, during which the two are expected to discuss peace, poverty and human rights.
No doubt Rouhani will also express his gratitude to the pontiff for his intervention last fall when he urged Congress not to sabotage the accord during its most delicate stages. Because the audience is private, it seems unlikely the true content of their discourse will be made public.
Then Rouhani will meet with parliamentarians and business groups before jetting off to Paris, where he is expected to continue the spending spree with the acquisition of 114 new aircraft from Airbus and a lucrative deal with French carmaker Peugeot.
Rouhani will not, however, be hosted at any formal meals on his French leg, since the French apparently aren’t as willing to give up their wine as the Italians, and, as such, the Iranian delegation has reportedly refused to attend any state dinners where wine is served. He will instead meet with a group of Iranian expats in Paris for a private dinner.
On Monday, as Rouhani’s plane touched down in Rome, Israeli Ambassador to Italy Gilon told Italy’s ANSA news wire that he feared the worst. “I hope it doesn’t become a victor’s parade by the king of the world to whom everything is allowed,” he said.
One’s tempted to drink to that sentiment.