(CNSNews.com) – Italy and the United States have a long and warm relationship, but for his final state dinner guest, President Obama chose a leader that has also gone further than any other in the West to embrace a regime in Iran that still views America as enemy number one.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the Obamas’ guest at Tuesday night’s glittering function at the White House, has met with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani no less than four times over the past year, as Italy scrambles to do business with the once-pariah state.
The process began shortly before the center-left Renzi took office. Two months before his inauguration in February 2014, then-Foreign Minister Emma Bonino became the first European Union foreign minister to pay an official visit to Iran in almost 10 years.
Later in 2014, Renzi’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, became the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, a post which put her at the center of the multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programs. Those talks led, in June 2015, to the conclusion of the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In the following months, five Italian cabinet ministers traveled to Iran, with businessmen in tow. In September 2015, Renzi met with Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where he assured the Iranian that he would urge Italian companies to launch joint ventures with Iranian ones.
In January, shortly after the JCPOA began to be implemented, Rouhani chose Italy as the first Western destination for an official visit, accompanied by ministers and businessmen.
During the trip Rouhani and Renzi oversaw the signing of contracts worth up to $18.3 billion, although the visit drew headlines for another reason too, after a museum in Rome covered up classical statues so as not to offend the visitors. The museum said it was acting under instructions from Renzi’s office, and the prime minister was excoriated by political opponents.
Less than three months later, Renzi traveled to Tehran, accompanied by a 250-member delegation including business leaders in the energy and defense sectors.
More deals were signed, and Italy’s state lender pledged four billion euros’ ($4.4 billion) worth of credit lines while the country’s export agency announced it would guarantee those loans.
Renzi, who met with Rouhani and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed the wish to revive a strategic partnership between the two countries.
During that two-day April visit, Iran hanged at least eight prisoners at the notorious Gohardasht prison near Tehran, according to the exiled opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which published a letter to Renzi from Iranian political prisoners, criticizing his visit.
“By traveling to Iran, you are to a large extent giving political legitimacy and authority to these criminal and murderous executions,” the letter stated. “At this moment we have just heard about the execution of nine people. By coming to Iran, you have definitely given them the political legitimacy and authority for further such executions.”
Critics admonished Renzi for embracing a government which under Rouhani has, according to a U.N. human rights investigator, overseen a 20-year high in executions.
“The fact is Iran remains one of the worst human rights violators in the world and a major fomenter of unrest and Islamic extremism in the region,” said Ken Maginnis, who sits in Britain’s House of Lords and is a prominent member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom.
“Shaking hands with the likes of Rouhani while young Iranians continue to face torture and imprisonment for expressing their ideals is a compromise that neither I nor my colleagues are willing to espouse or support."
According to Italy’s ambassador to Iran, Mauro Conciatori, Italy has established a human rights dialogue with Iran, dealing with “the issues of human rights in the legal systems of our two countries without any prejudice and on an equal footing.”
“Using a theoretical approach, it studies the different cultural backgrounds and different traditions of the two systems. It has come to the conclusion that there is a nucleus of concerns and values that are common to both systems,” Conciatori told the Tehran Times last week. “And on this basis, it can also tackle more concrete and more specific issues.”
Last month Renzi and Rouhani held their fourth meeting in a year, once again alongside the U.N. session in New York. There, Rouhani told him that Italy could be Iran’s first number one trading partner in Europe in the post-nuclear deal era.
Also last month, an Italian Navy frigate, Euro, became the first Western naval vessel to dock in an Iranian port in 15 years, spending four days in Bandar Abbas.
Tuesday night’s White House state dinner followed a day in Washington during which Renzi was showered with praise by his hosts, with Obama lauding his “bold” and “progressive” leadership.
Renzi, who last February told reporters he was “rooting for Hillary Clinton” to win the presidency, returned the compliment, recalling during a state luncheon hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry the “very powerful” speech delivered by then-Senator Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.