Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is going to Tehran within the next month. His decision to go — preceded by an announcement that Italy plans to invite Iran to the G-8 Summit in June (Italy holds this year’s rotating G-8 presidency) — was finalized after consulting the U.S. administration. Modestly, I think this is a bad idea, for a number of reasons. First, Italy is jumping the gun — negotiations have been conducted through the P5+1 group, of which Italy hopes to become a member. Italy no doubt aspires to play an active role in the diplomatic dance with Iran. But why do so at the price of bypassing critical allies?
Second, by going to Tehran to court the Mullahs, Frattini signals we need something from them. Tehran regularly causes trouble in Afghanistan, according to the recent Annual Threat Assessment, by providing “lethal aid” to the Taleban. Frattini could have chosen more neutral terrain.
Frattini might consider what Iran will ask of him. Iranian leaders will surely claim that Iran plays a constructive role along the Iran-Afghan border by combating drug traffickers — suggesting that it does so to prevent drugs from reaching European markets. They will remind Frattini of the heavy human price paid in this fight — 3,000 Iranian policemen are said to have died in recent years. And they will ask Frattini to pledge substantial help.
But Iran is doing itself a favor, since most drugs that go into Iran stay there for local consumption. Frattini should remember that when Iran was helped in its war against drugs its behavior was neither trustworthy nor transparent.
Hopegully, Frattini will go to Tehran armed with the right answers to Iran’s likely requests. He should be prepared to find his interlocutors ready to promise they will seriously consider attending the G-8 — an interest, in other words, without a commitment. Iran will thus buy time and force the Italians to come back for more. In the meantime, Tehran might say that of course Iran is willing to help the Italians stabilize the mess they are supposed to control in Herat province in Afghanistan. Iran might even hint at cooperating with the Great Satan and its allies for the overall stabilization of its eastern neighbor. But it will do so for a price. And the bazaar will begin. Good luck to Mr. Frattini with getting a bargain — with all due respect to Italy’s fine mercantile tradition, the Iranians do it better.