Pope Francis met Iranian President Hassan Rohani in the Vatican on Tuesday and urged Tehran to work with other Middle East states to promote peace and stop the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking in the region.
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Shi'ite Muslim Iran is the strongest ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Western countries back his mainly Sunni Muslim opponents in the five-year-old civil war. Many Western nations also accuse Iran of funding various militant groups which they deem to be terrorist organizations.
Despite being an Islamic republic, Iran has good relations with the Holy See and the Vatican has been seeking to use its influence with Teheran to help bring peace to the Middle East.
A Vatican statement spoke of the "important role Iran is called on to play, along with other countries in the region, to promote adequate political solutions to the problems that afflict the Middle East, combating the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking".
"I thank you for your visit and I hope for peace," Francis told the Iranian leader at the end of a 40-minute meeting in the pope's private study in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
Rohani, who wore a white turban and black robe, asked the pope to "pray for me". He then held separate talks with top Vatican diplomats.
Rohani is on a four-day trip to Italy and France and wants to rebuild Iran's ties with the West after financial sanctions on Tehran were rolled back some two weeks ago in the wake of its nuclear accord with world powers last year.
It was the first state visit by an Iranian president to the Vatican since 1999, although President Mohammad Khatami was among the many world leaders who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul in 2005.
Pope Francis has several times praised last year's deal that aims to curtail Tehran's atomic ambitions. He told the UN General Assembly last September it was "proof of the potential of political good will" in the international community.
"Strategic alliance" eyed
Italy announced some 17 billion euros ($18.4 billion) of business deals with Iran on Monday. Mega contracts are also in the offing in France, reflecting EU countries' keenness to cash in on the diplomatic thaw with the Islamic Republic.
Underscoring the growing warmth, Rohani said he expected Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to visit Iran in the coming months to help boost bilateral economic alliances.
"We are ready to welcome investment, welcome technology and create a new export market," Rohani told a business forum on the second day of his visit to Rome, saying Iran had ambitions to develop its own economy after years of curbs and hardship.
"Under the new conditions, we want to export 30 percent of what we produce in Iran."
Italy has rolled out the red carpet to Rohani and his 120-strong delegation of business leaders and government ministers, seeing Shi'ite Muslim Tehran as a possible partner in the battle against the Sunni Muslim jihadist group Islamic State.
"If we want to combat extremism in the world, if we want to fight terror, one of the roads before us is providing growth and jobs. Lack of growth creates forces for terrorism. Unemployment creates soldiers for terrorists," Rohani said.
Many Western nations accuse Iran of funding various militant groups that are on U.S. and EU terror blacklists. Despite Iran's deal with world powers to curb its disputed nuclear program, the United States is keeping some of its financial sanctions in place because of its links to organizations such as Hezbollah.
Any such criticism has barely been heard in Rome, with the government eager to welcome Iran as a potentially positive force in an increasingly fragmented Middle East.
"We are not looking at simple reactivation of our cooperation with Iran, but rather a comprehensive relaunch of a strategic alliance," Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told the business conference.
Among the deals signed on Monday were a $4 billion contract for oil services group Saipem, up to 5.7 billion euros in contracts for steel firm Danieli, up to 4 billion euros of business for infrastructure firm Condotte d'Acqua, 4 billion euros for rail and road company Gavio and 400 million euros for planes from Finmeccanica.
Industry Minister Federica Guidi told la Repubblica newspaper that the total value of the contracts could exceed the 17 billion euros initially indicated by the government.
Two large Italian business delegations went to Tehran soon after the nuclear deal was inked last year. Another such group is scheduled to visit Iran from February 8 to 10.