Italian politicians snub Ahmadinejad in Rome

...but industrialists don't.

Ahmadinejad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Ahmadinejad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Both the Vatican and the Italian government turned a cold shoulder to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week during the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's world summit in Rome in light of his hostile stance on Israel. Vatican spokesmen let it be known that Pope Benedict XVI would not be able to receive any of the heads of state attending the conference, either in groups or individually. The ministers and parliamentarians of the Italian government were less diplomatic, bluntly refusing to meet with "the head of state who calls for the destruction of another member state of the UN [Israel]," as Foreign Minister Franco Frattini put it. The rejection was driven home by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who walked out of the FAO auditorium shortly before Ahmadinejad's speech. In addition, Berlusconi did not invite Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabwe to a gala dinner in honor of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They were the only two heads of state attending the conference not to receive invitations. This united political front was offset by the "business as usual" attitude of Italian investors, many of whom were attending another conference, titled "The Possibilities for Developing Economic Relations between Italy and Iran." Organized by the Iranian Embassy, it featured Ahmadinejad as keynote speaker and focused on strengthening Iran's economic relations with Italy - already a major trading partner of Teheran. Meanwhile, in the city center, the steps of Piazza di Spagna were draped in black by Iranian opposition and human right groups. There was also a "talk marathon" against Ahmadinejad at the Campidoglio, the headquarters of the mayor of Rome. During the marathon, Rita Bernardini, the secretary-general of the Italian Radical Party, called on businesspeople to be more ethical and have the courage to "turn down offers from Iran, as appetizing as they might be" in the name of world security. Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome's Jewish community, expressed support for "the defense of the Iranian people, oppressed by a fanatic tyrant who deprives his citizens of every right to freedom, including those of women and political opponents as well as those expressing sexual diversity," and warned "against the danger of nuclear arms in a despotic nation that daily threatens to eliminate a member state of the UN such as Israel...." The speeches were interspersed with films documenting human rights violations in the Islamic Republic. Umberto Ranieri, former head of the Chamber of Deputies' Foreign Affairs Committee, speaking at the marathon, emphasized the need for Europe to be more united on Iran as the only effective tool against the threat posed by Teheran's present leadership was economic sanctions. Much of the crowd at the talk marathon consisted of Jewish community representatives and activists, pro-Israel associations, journalists and Iranian dissidents; parliamentary opposition leaders such as Walter Veltroni (former mayor of Rome), Massimo D'Alema (former foreign minister) and Piero Fassino were notably absent. Some of those present said that had the rally been called at a neutral public square rather than in the "home" of Rome's new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, whose party (Alleanza Nazionale) is on the political Right, perhaps speakers from a broader political spectrum would have attended. Also in Rome on Tuesday, Ahmad Rafat, vice-director of the APCom News Agency and Rome correspondent for the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, was declared "persona non grata" by guards at the entrance to Ahmadinejad's press conference at the FAO headquarters. They removed his badge and refused to let him in. Later, conflicting and unsatisfactory explanations were circulated. "An unidentified national delegation gave this order, fearing Rafat would ask questions that would embarrass Ahmadinejad," the journalist was told. "Rafat had run-ins with the Italian police and his name is in the Italian Interior Ministry's files" was another statement given verbally at the FAO - immediately denied by the very same ministry. The Foreign Press Association in Rome, of which Rafat is a member, has protested and demanded official explanations and identification of the source of the ban. "The truth is that I report freely on violations of human rights in Iran and that I speak out against Ahmadinejad's threats to the existence of Israel," said Rafat. "The international community must not allow the Iranian government to limit the freedom of press in other countries." Throughout changing political constellations, Italy has always supported the EU's stance on sanctioning Iran for not complying with international demands for greater transparency in its nuclear program. Italy's present government has reaffirmed this commitment, but the unspoken question on everyone's lips when Ahmadinejad left Rome was whether Italian leaders would be able to restrain investors from reaching for Iranian petrodollars.