Rouhani in Europe: ‘Zionist lobby’ blocking friendlier US-Iran ties

Iranian president says relationship with Washington could improve; Knesset speaker criticizes European leaders for giving leader warm welcome on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, gestures next to Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni as they attend an Iran-Italy business forum in Rome on January 26, 2016. (AFP / ANDREAS SOLARO)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, gestures next to Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni as they attend an Iran-Italy business forum in Rome on January 26, 2016. (AFP / ANDREAS SOLARO)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the “Zionist lobby” of torpedoing potentially positive ties between Tehran and Washington Wednesday.

Rouhani’s comments, which coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, were made to reporters in Italy before he took off for France during his first trip to Europe as president.

“It’s possible that Iran and the United States might have friendly relations. But the key to that is in Washington’s hands, not Tehran’s,” he said, according to Reuters.

“The Zionist lobby AIPAC is very active” and influential in the US, he said, in remarks translated by Channel 2.

He added that it was in Washington’s interest to no longer isolate Iran given the geopolitical reality of the region, saying it shouldn’t be pressured by what he called the Israeli and Jewish lobby.

“The Americans know well the important regional questions, that without Iranian presence, without the Iranian contribution, without Iranian opinion, these questions will not be resolved,” he said. “The Middle East is a very sensitive, very delicate region. We hope that the Americans end the hostility and this enmity and rather than always look to the past let them look more to the future.”

Rouhani said his first visit to Europe since his country signed a nuclear accord with world powers has proved that there are “great possibilities” for economic, academic, scientific and cultural cooperation.

“Today we are in a win-win situation” after years of mutual losses due to sanctions, he said.

Rouhani’s trip, coming closely on the heels of the nuclear deal, is seen as signaling a dramatic rapprochement between Tehran and the European powers since the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Ties with the US, while improved, have remained chilly.

The president is accompanied by a delegation of more than 100 ministers, officials and businessmen, marking the return of Iran on the international economic stage with the lifting of sanctions.

Even before Rouhani’s comments, Israeli Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein criticized the warm welcome the Iranian president received in Europe as the world commemorated the Holocaust as “hypocrisy.”

“I have no words to define presidents of countries who on International Holocaust Day host the Iranian president, like the president of France is doing. We will continue our struggle to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Let other people listen to their own consciences,” Edelstein said at the plenum opening.

A day after meeting with Pope Francis, Rouhani also said freedom of expression did not extend to insulting other people’s faith.

Rouhani told reporters he and Francis discussed the issue during their audience at the Vatican on Tuesday.

Francis was once asked about the extremist attacks on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. He suggested that a violent reaction could be expected when someone’s faith is insulted, saying that anyone who insults his mother can expect to be punched.

Rouhani concurred, saying “freedom of expression doesn’t mean that people can do what they want.”

Rouhani laughed Wednesday when asked at the end of a three-day visit to Italy about the statue cover-up, which made headlines in Italy and around the world. Some Italian politicians decried the “cultural submission” implied in Italy’s gesture.

Rouhani said Iran made no specific request for the cover-up, saying there were “no contacts about this” from the Iranian side.

But he added: “I know that Italians are a very hospitable people, a people who try to do the most to put their guests at ease and I thank you for this.”

The Iranian leader on Monday met with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with whom he attended the signing of several economic agreements in the prestigious setting of the Capitole.

Italian officials said contracts signed in Rome would be worth up to 17 billion euros ($18.4 billion), underlining the huge economic stakes involved in Iran’s re-opening, particularly for Europe’s manufacturing and engineering sectors.

On Monday, Rouhani attended a business forum at which he portrayed Iran as the ideal base for companies seeking a foothold in a region of 300 million people, reassuring would-be investors their contracts would be honored.

“Iran is the safest, the most stable country in the entire region,” Rouhani said.

“Everyone understood that the nuclear negotiations represented a win-win situation for both sides.

“Now we have created the conditions for investment and for the transfer of know-how. There has to be an advantage for both sides: we invite you to invest and we will provide stability and ensure that you can make adequate returns.”

Rouhani then visited the Vatican for the first time and met Pope Francis, who has urged Iran to work for peace in the Middle East.

Rouhani is due to arrive late Wednesday afternoon in Paris where he will meet the following day with President Francois Hollande and French business leaders.

A joint press conference is planned after Rouhani’s meeting with Hollande on Thursday, the French presidency said.

Iran has been rebuilding its relations with Italy and France, which were among Tehran’s main economic partners before the tightening of international sanctions in January 2012.

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