by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) — Italy concluded a series of commercial talks with Iran this week, strengthening ties with the Middle Eastern country despite the United States adopting a more hardline approach toward Tehran.
When Washington helped broker a landmark nuclear deal with Iran two years ago, Italy, one of the United States’ closest allies for more than 70 years, was a strong supporter of the measure.
The two countries, however, have moved in opposite directions in regards to Iran since then, which could potentially strain their relations.
“There is a risk for Italy and other European Union (EU) states to chart a course on Iran that departs from that of the U.S.,” Riccardo Alcaro, head of the Global Actors Program at Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, told Xinhua.
“But it’s a calculated risk, one that Italy and others believe is worth taking because of domestic interests and more stability in the region.”
The 2015 nuclear deal lifted crippling sanctions against Iran in exchange of strict limits on its nuclear ambitions, including inspections by foreign observers. Then U.S. President Barack Obama was one of the main architects of the accord, but his successor Donald Trump has threatened to decertify it, claiming Iran has broken rules.
Achieved after months of diplomatic efforts, the international nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed by the five permanent UN Security Council members — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — plus Germany, and Iran, and endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council in 2015.
European countries, including Italy, disagree with Trump on the issue. “We have no indications of violations,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in a televised interview earlier this month.
In this context, officials from Iran met with Italian business leaders and government officials in Rome on Nov. 27 to build bridges between the two countries.
“We will make every effort within the framework of the Iran nuclear deal to remove financial issues for Italian companies interested in investing in Iran,” Benedetto Della Vedova, Italian undersecretary of state for foreign affairs and international cooperation, said at the conclusion of the talks.
Trade between Italy and Iran has been on the rise since the nuclear deal was signed. According to figures from Italy’s ministry of foreign affairs, In 2014, the last full year with sanctions in place, Italian exports to Iran were worth 1.15 billion euros (1.35 billion U.S. dollars). The number rose to 1.55 billion euros (1.84 billion dollar) last year.
Imports from Iran increased more dramatically over the same time span, jumping from 440 million euros (523.68 million dollars) to 1.05 billion euros (1.25 billion dollars), an increase of nearly 140 percent in two years.
Machines and machine parts are the main Iranian imports from Italy, while Italy imports raw materials from Iran.
“I think Italy and other European states recognize that Iran is now an increasingly powerful, stable, and fully functioning country they should engage with,” Alcaro said. “It’s a policy of engagement rather than confrontation, based on the belief that Iran cannot be dictated to as it was 20 or 25 years ago.”
The fact that most of the biggest EU states — notably Germany, France, and Spain — have Iran policies more or less in line with those of Italy means the risks are probably diminished.
“Most of Europe is standing behind the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, despite the changes in Washington,” said Annalisa Perteghella, a research fellow on the Iran desk of Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies. “That reduces the risks for any single country. The U.S can’t really lash out at all of them.”