Italy grapples with Iranian leader's visit

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The Independent Online

Italy was wrestling yesterday with the problem of what to do about a one-man diplomatic nightmare known as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who is making his first trip to western Europe this week.

The Holocaust-denier, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be destroyed, is flying in to Rome, with 40 other heads of state, for a UN summit on the soaring cost of food. Organisers at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) insist they had no choice but to invite him with the heads of state of all the UN's other 190 members.

Israel is incensed. "To imagine on the podium of a UN organisation a leader who calls for the destruction of a member state is a disgrace for every democrat," its ambassador to Rome, Gideon Meir, told the daily La Repubblica. Mr Ahmadinejad's presence has also been fiercely criticised in the Italian media, and a coalition of secular groups under the slogan "We are hungry for freedom" will protest against his visit outside Rome's city hall today.

For the Italian government, the task of dodging the undesirable photo-op was relatively simple. The Foreign Ministry said a meeting between the Iranian leader and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would only happen if Mr Ahmadinejad was prepared to climb down on Israel and the Holocaust, or make a substantive offer on Iran's nuclear programme. None of those was forthcoming, so a polite refusal was not difficult.

The Vatican's position was trickier, because the Pope's meetings with heads of state do not follow the give-and-take logic of those between political leaders. In principle, the Pope is available to meet any head of state and Mr Ahmadinejad was one of at least half a dozen to request a meeting with him, including Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Pope Benedict considers dialogue with Islam to be important, and Mr Ahmadinejad who, in the past, has written to the Pope about the need for interaction between faiths, has described the Vatican as "a positive force for justice and peace". He was keen to cement the budding friendship this week but the Vatican was desperate to avoid the high-profile embarrassment of a Vatican-Iran love-in.

A blunt refusal to meet Mr Ahmedinejad was equally out of the question, however. In the end, the Vatican decided that the only way out was to make it clear that the Pope "will not receive any foreign head of state" during the course of this week's summit.

The Iranian head of state is the most awkward member of the stellar cast that has already begun arriving in the Italian capital, which is home to the FAO's headquarters. Other leaders committed to attend include President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

The summit was originally intended to focus on the relation of global warming to food prices but the agenda has been hijacked by events. The organiser, Herve Lejeune, assistant director general of FAO, told Agence France-Presse: "When we planned this summit a year ago, it was to address the long-term impact of global warming and biofuels on food security. Now we have the price surges. So the immediate problems as well as the need to invest in long-term agricultural policies will be at the heart of the conference."

Food prices worldwide have nearly doubled in the past three years, and the steep rises in prices of basic food have sparked riots in many African and some Asian countries. FAO says that 22 countries, mostly in Africa, are at high risk from record food and fuel costs.

The World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, who will also attend the summit, said that two billion people around the world are struggling to find the money to buy the food they need, and 100 million people in poor countries could be pushed deeper into poverty by the crisis.

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