TEHRAN, Iran — French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared Wednesday during a landmark visit to Iran that the time has come for the two nations' relations to improve, calling his visit "an important trip" in the wake of a key nuclear deal reached with Tehran earlier this month.
Iran's state news agency IRNA described the visit — the first visit by a foreign minister of France in over a decade — as the start of a "new era" in bilateral ties.
That optimism was echoed by President Hassan Rouhani, who told Fabius during a meeting that the nuclear deal could "bring better relations with Europe," IRNA reported.
"Tehran and Paris want to bridge their previous differences and take a new path toward cooperation and constructive interaction," IRNA said.
However, the visit was marred by a protest by Iranian hard-liners in Tehran who calling Fabius an "obstacle" because of France's tough position during the nuclear negotiations.
The French diplomat was widely seen as the "bad policeman" and even accused by Iranian hard-liners of being a "Zionist lackey" who at one point reportedly threatened to derail the emerging accord.
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 the lifting of sanctions.
Fabius said France wants to see progress in Iran. His visit followed that of EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini the day before, as the bloc and Iran also pursue closer relations after the nuclear deal.
"What we aimed for in the nuclear talks was to reach an agreement that not only would benefit Iran, France, the world and relieves Iranians from punishments and sanctions and allows them to make progress, but also prevents nuclear proliferation among other regional countries so that no one even thinks about having a nuclear bomb," he told reporters at a press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Fabius also said he carries 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'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.
But the Iranian hard-liners cited a scandal from the 1980s as another reason for opposing the French foreign minister's visit. The scandal involved blood supplies contaminated with HIV that were imported from France at the time when Fabius was prime minister and which infected hundreds of Iranians.