- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

ROME | Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a close ally of former President George W. Bush, hopes Italy’s ties with Iran will give it renewed cachet with Mr. Bush’s successor, political analysts here say.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini last week invited his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, to take part in a meeting of the Group of 8 major industrial nations about Afghanistan in the Italian city of Trieste on June 8.

“We are for the first time taking seriously … the possibility of inviting Iran to be a positive contributor to the stability of the region,” Mr. Frattini said during a visit to the Afghan province of Herat, where most of the Italian contingent of 2,300 soldiers is based.

The Italian overture was eclipsed somewhat by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement Thursday that she wants a high-level multilateral meeting on Afghanistan - to include Iran - by the end of this month. But it reflected, nevertheless, Italy’s efforts to prove its usefulness to the Obama administration as well as its own interest in resolving the crisis with Iran.

Italy is Iran’s largest trading partner in Europe with annual trade of about $7.5 billion. It is also the host of this year’s G-8 summit on the Italian island of Sardinia in July.

Italian Ambassador to Washington Giovanni Castellaneta told The Washington Times last month that nuclear talks with Iran should be expanded beyond the nations that have been involved in the past - the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany. “There are also some other countries” that could maintain pressure on Iran more effectively, he said.

“If you are looking at what Rome is offering now, I think that Italy’s links to Iran are more interesting to the State Department than Italian policies on Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Nina Gardner, the head of the Americans in Italy Elect Obama committee.

Mr. Berlusconi was a staunch supporter of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and has been wracking his brain to find a way to get on the right side of President Obama, according to Silvio Fagiolo, a former Italian ambassador to Germany and the European Union.

“Now Berlusconi will try to develop a personal relationship with Obama. He is a charmer with a great sense of show,” Mr. Fagiolo said. “I would expect him to stage some kind of spectacular stunt to woo Obama in Sardinia.”

Mr. Berlusconi got off to an embarrassing start with the Obama administration by quipping during a trip to Moscow that the new U.S. president was “suntanned.”

Ms. Gardner said the gaffe would not cause lasting damage.

“Obama is big enough to move on,” she told The Times. “I know that for a fact from Obama’s people.”

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