Iranian president in France for business bonanza
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in France on Wednesday for an official visit during which he is expected to sign a host of commercial deals.
The visit, the first to France by an Iranian president since 1999, is the second leg of a trip signalling Tehran's rapprochement with Europe following the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Rouhani kicked off his Paris visit by meeting some 20 top French business leaders, and he "expressed the wish to see (commercial) relations develop" between the two countries, France's economy minister Emmanuel Macron said.
Macron unveiled a new government scheme to guarantee investments by French firms in Iran, continuing the spree that Rouhani began in Italy, where he sealed industrial deals worth between 15 and 17 billion euros ($18.5 billion).
Even before Rouhani landed in Paris, the Iranian transport minister said Tehran would be rubber-stamping a deal to buy 114 passenger planes from European aircraft maker Airbus while in France.
Rouhani will also ink a deal signalling the return of French carmaker Peugeot to Iran, in partnership with Iranian manufacturer Khodro, according to a French government source.
Peugeot will produce 200,000 vehicles a year beginning in 2017.
When Peugeot pulled out of Iran in 2012 under the weight of the Western sanctions over the country's nuclear programme, it was the maker's second biggest market after France.
In another potential bonanza, French oil giant Total is said to be interested in buying Iranian crude.
Rouhani will meet with President Francois Hollande and they will hold a joint press conference which is expected to touch on Iran's bitter feud with Saudi Arabia.
The visit was originally scheduled to take place after the November 13 jihadist attacks on Paris, but was postponed.
The Iranian opposition is expected to hold a human rights demonstration in Paris to coincide with Rouhani's visit.
- Defiance over Saudi row -
At a press conference rounding off his Rome visit, Rouhani was defiant when asked whether Iran would apologise to Saudi Arabia for an attack on its embassy by demonstrators furious over Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
It is not up to Iran to make a move towards reconciliation in a crisis that has seen Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran, Rouhani said.
"Why should we apologise, because (activist and Shiite cleric) Nimr al-Nimr was executed? We are the ones to apologise because they are killing the people of Yemen? Apologise to them because they are helping terrorists?" he asked.
"They are the ones who should apologise to Muslim people, hundreds of times."
Rouhani, a 67-year-old former academic and diplomat who is seen as a pragmatist, was elected in 2013 on a pledge to end sanctions and improve relations with the West.
The Iranian leader met with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with whom he oversaw the signing of several economic agreements.
The president is accompanied by a delegation of more than 100 ministers, officials and businessmen, eager to seal deals as Europe's manufacturing and engineering sectors clamour to get into the Iranian market as it opens up.
On Monday, Rouhani attended a business forum at which he portrayed Iran as the ideal base for companies seeking a foothold in a region of 300 million people and reassured would-be investors their contracts would be honoured.
"Iran is the safest, the most stable country in the entire region," Rouhani said.
"Everyone understood that the nuclear negotiations represented a win-win situation for both sides.
"Now we have created the conditions for investment and for the transfer of know-how. There has to be an advantage for both sides: we invite you to invest and we will provide stability and ensure that you can make adequate returns."
Rouhani then visited the Vatican for the first time and met Pope Francis, who has urged Iran to work for peace in the Middle East.
Iranian Transport Minister Abbas Akhoundi said Sunday that Tehran would sign a deal "between Iran Air and Airbus" while Rouhani is in Paris. An Airbus spokesman declined to comment.
Rouhani himself said: "We need to modernise our aviation fleet and buy locomotives."
Iran has been rebuilding relations with Italy and France, which were among Tehran's main economic partners before the tightening of international sanctions in 2012.
© 2016 AFP