- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - France sought Wednesday to relaunch diplomatic ties with Iran in the hope of boosting business in the country, following a key nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers reached earlier this month.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called his one-day visit to Iran “an important trip” and tried to soften tensions created by France’s hard line on the nuclear issue.

“It is true that in the past few years, for reasons everybody knows, ties have been weaker. But now, with the nuclear agreement, we hope that things are going to change,” Fabius told reporters ahead of a series of meetings with Iranian top officials, including president Hassan Rouhani.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA described the visit - the first by a French foreign minister in over a decade - as the start of a “new era” in bilateral ties. Rouhani told Fabius that the nuclear deal could “bring better relations with Europe,” IRNA reported.

Fabius said he carried an invitation from French President Francois Hollande for Rouhani to visit France in November and that a French economic delegation is expected to arrive in Iran by the end of summer.

France hopes to position itself to benefit from Iran’s promising economy. The country of 80 million is set for 3-percent growth this year. Iran has the fourth-largest oil reserves and the second-largest gas reserves of the world.

The July 14 deal between Iran and six world powers - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - is meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Fabius’ trip followed that of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini the day before, as the bloc and Iran also pursue closer relations after the nuclear deal. German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel was the first top Western official to rush to Iran following the nuclear agreement.

However, Fabius’ visit was marred by a protest by Iranian hard-liners in Tehran, who called him an “obstacle” because of France’s tough position during the nuclear negotiations. The French diplomat was widely seen as playing the role of bad cop, and was even accused by Iranian hard-liners of being a “Zionist lackey” who at one point reportedly threatened to derail the emerging accord.

France’s hosting of Iran’s late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during his exile in the 1970s facilitated France’s economic dealings with the Islamic Republic. French energy giant Total and automakers Renault and Peugeot had a strong presence in Iran before they withdrew in 2012 after sanctions were imposed over Iran’s nuclear program. However, Total and Renault have never totally cut the ties with Iran.

The Iranian hard-liners cited a scandal from the 1980s as another reason for opposing the French foreign minister’s visit. The scandal is based on allegations that blood supplies contaminated with HIV were imported from France at the time when Fabius was prime minister, infecting hundreds of Iranians.


Corbet contributed from Paris

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