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Italy visit a breakthrough for Khatami

By Paul Taylor,
Diplomatic Editor

LONDON, March 11 (Reuters) - He came, he saw, he conquered.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami achieved a foreign policy triumph with his three-day state visit to Italy, impressing Pope John Paul, charming Italian leaders and reaching out beyond Rome to the rest of Europe and the United States.

On the first visit by an Iranian head of state to a Western capital since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Khatami sought to reassure the West by pledging to promote democracy, fight terrorism and combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet he also reassured his domestic audience by insisting the Islamic Republic must be treated as an equal on a world stage where it has long been treated by the United States as a ``rogue state.''

``Khatami presented a completely different image of Iran. This will lead to further invitations to Europe and make it harder for the Americans to go on trying to isolate Iran,'' a West European diplomat said.

Coming on top of a triumph for his reformist supporters in local elections, and the replacement of Iran's intelligence minister after the admission that rogue security agents had killed dissident intellectuals, the Rome trip should further strengthen Khatami's hand against hardline opponents at home.

Significantly, the U.S. State Department did not criticise the visit but asked Italy to press concerns about alleged Iranian support for terrorism, reported efforts to develop nuclear weapons and hostility to the Middle East peace process.

Khatami sought to pre-empt such complaints, and Western criticism of Iran's human rights record, by addressing them himself in a series of carefully crafted speeches and comments. His Italian hosts and the Vatican said they raised human rights with him but they did not embarrass him by detailing their concerns in public.

Pope John Paul said of their landmark meeting: ``This was a very important, promising day.''

Khatami, who advocates a ``dialogue among civilisations,'' said he was returning home full of hope for the future.

Even the apparent coincidence of British author Salman Rushdie being in Italy simultaneously to receive an honorary doctorate from Turin University failed to trigger a diplomatic incident.

The late Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned Rushdie to death in 1989 for blaspheming Islam in his novel ``The Satanic Verses,'' but Khatami's government has formally dissociated itself from that order.

Iranian newspapers lashed out at Italy for admitting Rushdie, apparently unaware that as a British citizen he needs no visa to enter a European Union country. But the juxtaposition of the two visits can have done Khatami no harm in the West.

The philosopher-president had economic as well as political and religious grounds to be delighted with the trip. His visit followed a second major European investment in Iran's energy sector, involving Italy's ENI and French oil giant Elf Aquitaine, which blew a further hole in U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

Under strong pressure from the European Union, President Bill Clinton agreed last year to waive the extraterritorial sanctions against French energy major Total when it led a big investment in Iran's gas sector.

U.S. officials have criticised the Elf-ENI deal and said they will study it, but diplomats said it was politically inconceivable that Washington could slap sanctions on now, given Iran's progress on democracy and foreign relations.

``A second successful breach means the sanctions are effectively dead,'' one U.S. official conceded. Khatami's next foreign venture could well be a landmark trip to Saudi Arabia to mend fences with Iran's most important oil producing neighbour across the Gulf, diplomats say.

After that, an invitation to France beckons and diplomats believe he could also be welcomed in Germany by the end of the year, providing a German businessman sentenced to death in Iran for sex with a Moslem woman is freed after a pending retrial.


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