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Pope asks Tehran to stop spread of terrorism – Rouhani presents Iran as ME trade hub

popeROME, Jan 26, (Agencies): Generating economic growth in the Middle East is crucial to defeating extremism, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, putting forward his country as a regional trade hub and pillar of stability.

Rouhani is on a four-day trip to Italy and France, looking to rebuild Iranian relations with the West some two weeks after financial sanctions on Tehran were rolled back following the implementation of its nuclear deal with world powers. 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, Rouhani 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,” Rouhani 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,” he said, calling for rapid investment in “the most secure and stable country in the region”.

Later, during a 40-minute private meeting in Pope Francis’s private study, the pontiff asked Rouhani to work with other Middle East states to promote peace and stop the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking in the region. Italy rolled out the red carpet to Rouhani and his 120-member delegation of business leaders and cabinet ministers, seeing Shi’ite Muslim Iran as a possible partner in the international coalition against Sunni Muslim Islamic State insurgents. “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,” Rouhani said.

Many Western nations accuse Iran of funding various militant groups that are on US and EU terror blacklists. Despite Iran’s deal with world powers to curb its disputed nuclear programme, the United States is keeping some of its financial sanctions in place because of its links to organisations such as Hezbollah.

Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia — alarmed and angry over Iran’s coming in from the diplomatic cold, especially its newly pragmatic contacts with the United States — sought to deflate hopes that Tehran would be a bonanza for foreign investors. “They all have these bright euro or dollar signs in their eyes about Iranian business opportunities, but whoever is going to do business in Iran will have to do it with their money and not Iranian money,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, earlier the Saudi intelligence head and ambassador to Washington, said on Tuesday.

But any such criticism barely registered in Rome, where the economy continues to struggle after a three-year slump and where the government is 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.

To spare the leader of the Islamic Republic possible offence, the Italians even covered nude Roman statues in the Capitoline Museums where Rouhani met and spoke with Renzi on Monday evening. 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 Feb 8 to 10. Grandson Meanwhile, Iran has excluded Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic and a cleric with ties to reformist politicians, from contesting elections to the country’s powerful Assembly of Experts. The decision, revealed by Khomeini’s son on Tuesday, was taken by the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated committee that decides who can run for public office. Khomeini was among hundreds of candidates ruled out of standing for the assembly, which monitors the work of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With an eight-year term of office, its 88 members may also be responsible for picking the 76-year-old’s eventual successor. The rejected candidates have until Saturday to appeal. Voting for the assembly will take place on Feb 26, the same day as parliamentary polls. Following Iran’s recent nuclear deal with world powers led by the United States, both elections are seen as crucial to shaping the country’s future direction. Khomeini is the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution that ended the reign of US-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The elder Khomeini, a firebrand conservative who railed against pervasive Western influence, died in 1989. He remains revered — his image present in every public office, on Iranian banknotes and on countless murals in Tehran and other cities. His grandson’s candidacy for the assembly would have been the first time since the late leader’s death that the famous family name would have been returned to politics. At 43, Khomeini is significantly younger than most of the current members of Assembly. But he was not verified as having sufficient religious competence to contest the ballot, his son said on his Instagram account, which has 199,000 followers. In a post including a picture of his father studying religious texts, Ahmad Khomeini said the Guardian Council verdict came despite “testimony from dozens of religious authorities”. “It became definite last night (Monday)” that his father had not been classed as “mojtahed”, or sufficiently learned in Islam, to take a place on the assembly, he wrote. A member of the Guardian Council said on Jan 5 that Khomeini had failed to attend a qualifying exam.

But in his post Khomeini’s 18-year-old son cast doubt on that being the grounds for his father’s exclusion. “In my opinion the reason for non-verification is clear to everyone, especially given that some others’ ijtehad (“knowledge” in Farsi) has been verified without them sitting for the exam,” he wrote. The Assembly of Experts is comprised solely of clerics. A final list of candidates is expected on Feb 9. Around 800 candidates announced bids in December to join the assembly, opening the door to the verification process. A spokesman for the Central Elections Supervising Committee, the vetting arm of the Guardian Council, said 166 candidates had been approved for the Assembly election, 111 were not authorised, 207 were disqualified and 158 had withdrawn. A further 152 candidates did not attend the qualification exam, Siamak Rah-Peyk said on state television.

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