Khatami ventures out into Europe

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The Independent Online
WHEN MOHAMMED Khatami arrives in Rome tomorrow, he will be the first Iranian head of state to visit Western Europe since the 1979 revolution toppled the Shah and swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

During his three-day official visit he will meet the Italian President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and the Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, in an effort to establish a dialogue with the West. A meeting with the Pope is also scheduled.

Mr Khatami arrives in Italy, the European country mostopen to his regime, with his foreign minister, the minister for mines and metals, and the minister for energy, who is directly responsible for oil exports. A goal will be to pave the way for new trade agreements.

Italy imports much of its oil from Iran. Last year, Lamberto Dini was the first European foreign minister to visit Tehran, and the Italian state energy group ENI has just signed a contract with Iran to tap oil- fields in the Persian Gulf.

But Mr Khatami's visit has prompted sharp criticism from some Italian MPs, union organisations and women's groups, and from representatives of the almost 500,000 Iranians living in Europe.

Nevertheless Mr Khatami's reception at the highest official level implies that the Italian government is willing to accept the recent reforms in Iran as genuine. Mr Dini said: "We must ensure that Khatami and his government are welcomed in the West, and make them feel we do not wish to isolate Iran."

Mr Khatami, in whose country a Catholic minority is tolerated, will meet the Pope on Thursday. A Vatican official said: "The Pope's policy has always been that dialogue is preferable to isolation."

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