U.S. officials are concerned that the Italian government’s recent rush to reenter the Iranian marketplace could hasten the collapse of international economic sanctions and undermine Western efforts to pressure Tehran into inking a final nuclear deal.
The Italian government has been leading the charge to reopen the Iranian marketplace in order to cash in on Tehran’s lucrative energy sector, according to numerous reports and sources tracking the situation.
As the Italians seek to boost their economic ties with Iran—sending high-level officials and lawmakers for talks—U.S. officials and other experts say they are growing concerned that Italy’s aggressive outreach could undermine the international sanctions regime.
A delegation of Italian lawmakers met with a top Iranian official over the weekend, possibly laying the groundwork for a visit later this month by Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, according to Iranian officials.
"Over last few months, positive and constructive approach has been adopted by Italian Government," Iran’s ambassador to Italy told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) earlier this month. "There have been meetings and visits by foreign ministers of the two countries, grounds have been provided for the development of ties between the two countries, and we hope that we could witness exchange of high-ranking officials of the two countries."
The visit by top Italian lawmakers was deemed a great success by both governments.
"The visit by Italian parliamentary delegation was a positive event. The delegation comprising of both majority and minority Senate members, truly represented the whole political spectrum of Italy," Rodolfo Calò, the chief of Italy’s ANSA state news agency, told Iran’s state-run Mehr News Agency on Thursday.
Calò went on to classify Iran an "important partner for Italy."
One U.S. official involved in Iran sanctions said that Italy’s aggressive efforts to court Iran are damaging international sanctions.
"Italy’s activities are already having detrimental effects on the international sanctions regime against Iran," said the source, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue.
"Italy is intentionally undermining American and [European Union] economic pressure on Iran and a visit by the [Italian] prime minister would be a major blow to U.S. and EU Iran policy," said the source. "Put simply, Italy’s behavior undermines the goal of reaching a political agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program—do the Italian people want to be held responsible for a war?"
Italy and Iran have been working to increase their diplomacy across all levels of the government since around August of 2013.
Italy’s deputy foreign minister made a high-profile trip in August to Tehran, where he discussed ways to expand bilateral relations between the two nations, according to Iran’s state-run PressTV.
Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator Javad Zarif reciprocated in November, when he traveled to Italy to meet with his Italian counterpart Emma Bonino, who expressed his desire to reenter Iranian "sectors affected by the international sanctions," according to the Italian Foreign Ministry’s readout of the trip.
Italy’s Bonino also spent two days in Tehran in December to discuss with Zarif "potential new activities" to work on once sanctions are rolled back, according to AFP.
Former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema was also in Iran around the same time to tout the benefits of the recently reached interim nuclear agreement that provides Tehran some $7 billion in sanctions relief.
In addition to cashing in on Iran’s sanctioned oil sector, the Italians reportedly hope to play a role in Tehran’s chemical, textile, medicine, gas, and car trade.
An Italian trade mission is slated to meet with Iranian officials later this month.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said that Italy is determined to do business with Tehran.
"Italy did not even wait for the interim deal in Geneva to rekindle its business love affair with Iran," Ottolenghi told the Washington Free Beacon. "Italy’s deputy foreign minister, Lapo Pistelli, visited Tehran to attend President Rouhani’s swearing in ceremony last August and has tirelessly called to turn a new page."
"Italy’s foreign minister, Emma Bonino, was the first EU minister to visit Tehran after the Geneva Interim Deal, showing how the current Italian government, despite protestations to the contrary, is driven more by economic incentives than a commitment to non-proliferation issues," he said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton added, "Italy previously had an extensive trade relationship with Iran, so it's no surprise Italian companies are leading the charge back in."
A spokesperson for the Embassy of Italy did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. A White House spokesman declined comment.