Il Foglio Interview with Foreign Minister Franco Frattini

Italy already has more Influence on Iran
June 6, 2008

The 5+1 on Iran has already become the 5+2. A delegation of Italian experts will be seated at the negotiating table from the next meeting on. "The latest UN Atomic Energy Agency report on nuclear power in Teheran showed that things have slipped back. We can't stop at this half-way point", foreign minister Franco Frattini tells Il Foglio. The Iranian dossier will be the central issue in the talks with the American president, George W. Bush, who arrives in Europe on 10 June and in Italy on the 12th. This will be Bush's last trip to Europe as President, and the first opportunity for the Berlusconi government to "give a new impetus to Italian-US relations" and define the Italian position. A position, explains Frattini, of "special partner in Europe for the Mediterranean and Middle East". To tell the truth, France is already playing this role. "But we're not jealous", smiles the minister. And relations with Nicolas Sarkozy, current incumbent and resident of the Elysée Palace, are known to be very relaxed.

"Not least", he suggests, "because we, unlike the French, don't have a colonial past. So with certain countries, like Algeria for example, we can play a leading role". But there is actually one marked difference with Paris: and that difference is Turkey. "We have always been in favour of seeing the talks for Ankara's accession to Europe continued", says Frattini. So Bush, all things considered, will find himself with a sound ally who is ready to step up his traditional task as mediator. Or "facilitator", as the head of Italian diplomacy likes to define it, on the many fronts in which Europe has a strategic role.

As we have seen, Iran is the fulcrum of this revitalised relationship. The United States are on Italy's side; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already expressed her support. One obstacle is Germany, which doesn't consider Italy's entry to the 5+1 contact group as being that important. But Frattini ably smoothes the sharp edges and says that "Germany's 'no' shouldn't really be taken as such". Suffice to read the Suddeutsche Zeitung's comment yesterday morning. "They wrote that Berlin should help Rome enter the talks on the Iranian nuclear question", points out Frattini. "That's a signal that the debate remains open. And the Suddeutsche is close to the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier". In short, Germany could soon establish that an Italian-German axis is just as desirable as the Italian-French one.

In the background remain major differences over the reform of the Security Council, which brings with it Italian, European and German ambitions. To prevent the discussion from becoming too heated, Frattini already has a plan. "We need to prevent these two issues, Iran and the UN, from being linked together". This will not necessarily be easy. Not least because, quite apart from the international prestige for Italy, membership of the contact group on Iran entails great commercial risk, in view of the volume of trade and our relations with Iran. Is it in our interests to have a place at that table? "Most definitely", says Frattini. "I'm convinced that it's useful for Italy to be on board. It's better to be part of the team deciding on the terms of the sanctions, rather than just having to apply them".

Collaboration with Russia

In addition to the firm line with Teheran, President Bush will also find another surprise waiting for him. Or, rather, he'll re-discover an old, pleasant memory. "It's the spirit of Pratica di Mare", explains Frattini. In 2002, at the NATO summit there, Berlusconi facilitated the dialogue between Bush and Vladimir Putin, at that time President of Russia (and at present "all-rounder" prime minister). And in so doing, he helped transform a chilly relationship into a firm friendship.

Now Russia's relations with Europe and the West have become strained, with the American anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe acting, in the Kremlin's eyes, as a Wooden Horse of Troy. So "we need to re-discover and renew the spirit of Pratica di Mare, and explain to our Russian friends that the shield is most definitely not being built against them. Especially as our objective, and Europe's, is to work alongside Russia, not just in the energy sector but also in the integrated defence sector". Russia is too important to allow ourselves to lose focus. There's energy dependence, but also "the visa policy [which will be discussed at the American-European summit in Slovenia on Monday 9 June, editor's note], and the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking". A return to the Pratica di Mare spirit is hugely important.

Our tour of the world with Minister Frattini leaves ample space for Lebanon and Unifil. Frattini is convinced that the country is too unstable to go to the Security Council to renegotiate the mission's rules of engagement. "There's no government, there's no army". Exactly, you feel like saying. This is when the Unifil soldiers, at the service of a non-existent army, are most at risk. But one result that Frattini has already achieved with this one-step-at-a-time policy is to have the existing rules "applied effectively". 11,000 vehicle checks were carried out in April, and 20,000 on people. Did we find anything? "No, but we only just missed an arms shipment". You can only wonder whether that's good news. But Frattini is certainly not lacking in determination.

This goes for Afghanistan too, where Frattini, with defence minister Ignazio La Russa, wants to inject greater flexibility that would enable a responsive capacity currently unimaginable. The two ministers will be reporting to parliament on this matter on 11 June, on the eve of Bush's arrival. "And the arrival of the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni", points out Frattini. "We want to establish structured bilateral relations with Israel, as they've already done with Washington and London".

Frattini isn't leaving anything out next week: there's a Chinese delegation coming too. Just yesterday morning, 16 monks were arrested in Tibet. "But the line to follow is one of solidarity", he says. "After the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the earthquake we can't speak of boycotts. We'll see how the dialogue between Peking and the Dalai Lama goes, and then we'll decide".

The Bush line, in short. The world seems a rosy place as seen from the foreign ministry. Can there possibly be no friction at all? "Oh yes, there are issues we quarrel about a lot with the Americans. Chlorine-washed chickens and the difficult task of convincing them that they can drink a glass of Brunello di Montalcino without any need for obscure tests". The tendency to protectionism in some Americans, especially Europe's favourite, Barack Obama, gives grounds for concern, says the minister. Marginal? "No, these details amount to billions of dollars. But I don't deal with these questions", he smiles. "I'm working on the 5+1".