Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the food crisis summit in Rome on June 3 ended in failure as the Iranian president united the entire Italian political class against himself. His inflammatory rhetoric found no audience as even the left was appalled by his hysterical anti-Israel outbursts.
Ahmadinejad had to take the first blow before his ill-fated journey had even begun. A week ahead of the summit the Iranian leader had asked for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican kept him waiting for some time and then announced on Saturday that no such meeting would take place. Prior to that, Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and foreign minister Franco Frattini had already declared that they would have no time for a meeting with Ahmadinejad.
Unable to arrange a high-profile encounter in Rome, the Iranian president managed to make headlines by yet again asserting his desire to destroy Israel. This turned out to be a strategic mistake. It forced all parts of the political spectrum to express their dismay at Ahmadinejad’s visit. The Iranian president’s message was so blunt and uncompromising that even critics of Israel felt the need to come to its defense.
Before taking off to Rome Ahmadinajed affirmed that “Israel is now at its end and will soon be wiped out from the maps of the earth.” As if that were not enough he also predicted that “the time for the fall and the annihilation of the satanic power of the United States has begun.” His vitriol mobilized anti-Mullah activists in Italy. On the day of the summit two main protests were organized; one taking place in the afternoon on the Spanish Steps and the other on the Capitol Hill in front of the mayor’s office in the evening.
The mayor, Gianni Alemanno, himself, spoke against Ahmadinejad’s presence in the eternal city and he was followed by many prominent exponents of both the center-right and center-left. It was not only the Jewish community in Rome and supporters of the state of Israel who joined the protests. Also present were Iranian dissidents, trade unionists, gay associations, human rights groups as well as many other people who demonstrated against the autocratic nature and nuclear ambitions of the regime.
It is unusual to see such a united cross-party front in the Italian political scenery. While government and opposition differ notably in their foreign policy prescriptions, the opposition Democratic Party (PD) did on this occasion not deviate from the line taken by the center-right. Former mayor and leader of the PD, Walter Veltroni, said that Ahmadinejad “should be aware of the repulsion felt by the Italian people and the international community” against his remarks.
The Iranian leader’s public relations failure was compounded by an incident which also throws a dubious light on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which was organizing the food crisis summit: Ahmat Rafat, a prominent journalist of Iranian origin, was denied entry to the FAO conference only because he is known to be a critic of the Iranian regime. Speaking later at the protest on the Capitol Hill, Rafat expressed his anger that the censorship of Teheran’s regime was even reaching as far as Rome. But this time the censorship backfired. The incident was widely reported on the Italian media and again highlighted the inability of the regime to deal with dissent. At the same time, the FAO was criticized for its handling of the matter.
Ahmadinejad’s ignoble trip to Rome should show him that Italy will lend no ear to his delirious verbal outbursts. But it also raises a question about what UN conferences can really achieve if such individuals are invited.