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Tuesday, March 9, 1999 Published at 10:21 GMT

World: Europe

Iran ends its isolation

Iran is seen by some as hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism

By Iranian affairs analyst Sadeq Saba

Iran's President, Mohammad Khatami, opens a new era in the history of the Islamic Republic when he travels to Italy on Tuesday - the first such visit to a European Union country by an Iranian head of state since the Iranian revolution 20 years ago.

The visit is a clear indication that Mr Khatami's attempt to increase Iran's standing in the international community is gradually succeeding.

Iran has long been seen as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and a centre for international terrorism.

'Outlaw state'

As the US still dubs the Islamic regime an outlaw state, this European visit is a major achievement for Mr Khatami and the reformist forces in Iran.

Mr Khatami's presence on the international stage could also encourage more European investment in Iran's failing economy.

He will have an ideal opportunity to convince sceptical foreign investors the Islamic Republic is stable, and persuade the international community to extend much-needed credit to Iran.

The visit could also seal a new alliance between Iran and Western Europe at the expense of the United States - Iran's former strategic ally.

The European Union has actively opposed US sanctions and several European oil companies have signed large oil deals with Iran despite Washington's threat of punishment.

Mr Khatami's high-profile visit to a major European country will further erode American attempts to isolate Iran.

Mr Khatami's visit will also have important impact on the balance of forces in Iran.

Mr Khatami's presence in Europe could also increase his popularity among Iranian people who are not happy with their country's isolation.

All in all, the visit may help to strengthen his position inside the country. His conservative opponents are fully aware of this and may try to undermine Mr Khatami by accusing him of becoming subservient to the West.

Demonstrations planned

The visit has been opposed by some Italian politicians and by the Iranian opposition abroad.

About half of the members of parliament in Rome have called on the government to put the issue of human rights high on the agenda.

Iranian opposition groups have also criticised Italy for giving credibility to a regime which they say is incapable of genuine change.

The Iranians are planning massive demonstrations in Rome during Mr Khatami's three-day visit.

The Italian Government has defended the visit, saying that Mr Khatami's moderate policies should be supported by Europe.

Supporters of the Iranian president are pleased that Italy is the first European country to provide such a vital international stage for him.

This could be reciprocated by lucrative business opportunities for Italy in the huge Iranian market.

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