ROME — Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said his country will raise the case of detained Washington Post Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Rome on Saturday, saying a resolution of the matter would help build confidence in the wake of Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers.
Rezaian has been held for more than a year and was recently convicted of espionage and other charges, though The Post and international media groups say he is innocent and acted solely as a journalist. Iran also recently arrested Dubai-based Iranian American Siamak Namazi, which brought to four the number of Americans with dual citizenship being held there.
In a lengthy interview with The Post, Gentiloni said he has already raised the issue of Rezaian’s detention with Iranian officials. The Italians, he said, will again bring up the case with Rouhani, who is making his first trip to Europe as president. Rouhani also will meet with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with economic cooperation topping the agenda. On a trip being billed as the beginning of Iran’s emergence from economic isolation from the West, Rouhani will also meet with Pope Francis before moving on to a second leg in France.
Italian and other European companies are scrambling to court Iran in anticipation of the lifting of international sanctions next year as part of the July accord to limit and strictly monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Gentiloni said that Italy was working on economic agreements with Iran but that they would be contingent on the lifting of sanctions. He said the resolution of outstanding humanitarian issues, including Rezaian’s detention, and Iranian cooperation on Syria, were crucial to building trust.
Below are edited excerpts from the interview:
Is Rouhani’s trip signaling Iran’s economic coming out?
We certainly appreciate the fact that Iran is choosing our country as the first to be visited by President Rouhani after the nuclear deal. And I think this is also connected to the fact that Iran feels toward Italy a relation based on what I would call ancient civilizations, even going back to the relationship between ancient Rome and Persia. The nuclear deal and the opening of economic relations are connected, but it is also very, very well known that if things proceed in the right direction, as we sincerely hope and frankly believe, there will also be a sort of, to be frank, competition within Western economies. We are talking about a market of 80 million people, many of them well educated. If the two pillars of the deal function as they are imagined, we eliminate the threat of a military nuclear-armed Iran and create a framework for new economic relations. I think this could open opportunities in a very relevant market where the Italians have been present since the 1950s.
The economic sanctions against Iran affected Italy hard?
Yes. Not only Italy. Other European countries, as well. We are now at the first step, and . . . we are not yet even at so-called implementation day. To arrive there, we need the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] to verify a certain number of issues. We know that the process has a very clear track, and the visit of President Rouhani will be an opportunity to start to consolidate our economic and cultural cooperation. But implementation is connected to their progress.
What are the potential sticking points?
I think what is at stake is mostly political, rather than connected to technical details. In Iran, we know they have elections next February and the public debate could be dominated by two connected issues. One is economics, and the other, relations with the West and the United States. So I think that the problem is not this or that or another technical element connected to the IAEA, but that the political will of the leaders who decided this deal in Vienna remains on track.
What could help keep things on track?
Obviously, there is something that could help to build more confidence. The minimum necessary is to respect what was signed, and that depends on political will. But apart from this, there is something else that could help build confidence and facilitate relations between the U.S. and Iran, or even between Iran, the U.S. and Europe. One issue is the situation concerning a certain number of American citizens. Your colleague Rezaian] and another two or three U.S. citizens. A solution of this issue could be not only a step in the right direction from a humanitarian point of view, but a contribution toward facilitating the whole process. If possible, European countries — Italy, as far as we are concerned — could try to help to not only raise this issue, but to try and find solutions.
Will Italy raise Jason’s case with the Iranians this weekend?
For sure. And we have already raised it before. We are raising these issues not to create a scandal but to try to make a contribution toward solving the problem. A solution not only for humanitarian reasons, but to create the right atmosphere. Another issue that could help is the potential of what is happening this Saturday in Vienna, where we will have the second round of negotiations on Syria.
Will you be asking the Iranians to cooperate more on Syria?
I think the Iranians could accept the idea that there is a possible transition, with an opening to a different governance from the one that we now have, and, at a certain point, arrive not at regime change, but to the fact that Bashar al-Assad is not the one in charge. They are not accepting this idea, but I hope for a compromise in the next negotiations.
How do you interpret the recent signs that hard-liners in Iran are toughening their stance at home?
I am not in a position to be accurate on news analysis. But what I firmly believe is that Iranian President Rouhani and the government have committed themselves to a process. I don’t think this process is about changing the principles of the Islamic republic, but it is about accepting a certain path of opening in the political and economic fields. This is what, from our point of view, is crucial.
Isn’t there a chance that the hard-liners will simply reestablish themselves more strongly if there is less pressure on the Iranian economy?
I think we should bet against this question. What we are certain of is that the mechanism of the agreement on the nuclear program allows us to know, to be informed, to be aware if the agreement is not implemented. We will know it. We will have information. But my firm belief knowing the complexity of Iranian society is that the more we go on track with the agreement, the more we build economic ties, the more this will also help to stabilize Iran.
You’ve used the word “gradual.” What’s your time line for a green light for investment?
If the conditions are verified by the IAEA, it could begin for sure early next year. . . .The reality is that already I have visited Iran with many Italian companies, and similar efforts were made by many Western countries. This is to prepare for a potential future relationship, but with a clear connection to the fact that this future depends on the progress of the deal. And the Iranians are fully aware of this.
You’ve been to Iran twice this year. What’s the atmosphere there like?
There is a great expectation of the fact that the deal can create new opportunities. . . . For sure, there is a sympathy for Italians. It is not only an Iranian characteristic. Italy has no hidden agenda. They know this. Italy has no colonial past in Iran. We had no significant quarrels with them in the last 30 years. They know very well that we are allied with NATO and the U.S. This is something Iranians are perfectly aware of, but it cannot erase a feeling of closeness and mutual understanding.
This deal has been very controversial, especially among some Republicans in the United States. How could that affect it?
I think that the deal is totally acceptable because on one side you kill a military threat and on the other side you open an economic window. Obviously, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But if it doesn’t work, we will know. And the mechanism is there to make us aware of that fact if it doesn’t work. I would say that I respect the discussion in the United States, but I am very happy that at the end, the position of President Obama supporting the deal was accepted. I know some say that with a stronger economy the Iranians will be more threatening. But I think with a stronger economy, they will be more interested in relations with their partners.
The Saudis recently expressed their concerns to Italy about the deal?
Yes.How do you envision Iran’s economy two or three years from now? Will Italy and other European countries be responsible for the modernization of the Iranian economy?
The Iranian market will never again be for Europe the same as it was before. In the last years, China arrived there and other countries, too, and they are very competitive countries. But we know that Western know-how and capabilities and technology is something very strong.
What agreement will be reached this weekend?
We will see, because, as always, things are finalized in the last days. What should be clear is that they will be obviously submitted to these safeguard clauses, as was mentioned. There are two different aspects. There are some issues concerning the past. There have been negotiations between the Iranian oil company and [the Italian energy giant] ENI over some claims arising from previous contracts. The sanctions regime authorized ENI to be paid in oil. Not money but oil . . . and there could be some sort of memorandum concerning future relations.