Iranian leader, saying nation 'stable and safe,' meets pope

VATICAN CITY -- Iran's president has paid a call on Pope Francis at the Vatican during a European visit aimed at positioning Tehran as a potential top player in efforts to resolve Middle East conflicts, including Syria's civil war.

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President Hassan Rouhani's motorcade of limousines crossed St. Peter's Square for the late-morning, closed-door meeting Tuesday with the pontiff.

In his nearly three years as pope, Francis has stressed mediation and dialogue as the best way to solve conflicts. That determination inspired his role between Cuba and the United States to pave the way for the Communist-led Caribbean nation to achieve normalization with Washington after decades of strict embargo.

Similarly, Tehran is keen on re-establishing flourishing energy and other economic ties with Europe, long a dependable trading partner. Iran also wants to end decades of diplomatic distance with the West in the wake of the landmark deal with six nations, including the United States, to curb Tehran's nuclear activities and end economic sanctions.

Before going to the Vatican, Rouhani told a forum of business leaders in Rome that "Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region."

The president is making the first state visit by an Iranian president to Europe in nearly two decades.

Italy also sees Iran as a potential peacemaker for Syria's civil war, as the Italian government fears the warfare will further destabilize Libya, just across the Mediterranean from southern Italy, fuel terrorism and jeopardize energy security.

"Italy has always backed the role of Iran as a regional player in resolving tensions in the area, starting with the Syrian crisis," Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said after meeting his Iranian counterpart, the Italian foreign ministry said.

Rouhani has described the political talks leading to the nuclear deal as a potential blueprint for pursuing peace in the Middle East.

Rouhani's four-day visit to Italy and next, to France, is part of efforts by Iran to reach out to its old partners following the implementation of the nuclear deal, and Rouhani is eager for foreign investments after the lifting of international sanctions. The trip was originally planned for November but postponed by the attacks in Paris.


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