ROME — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani invited American businessmen to join their European counterparts in investing in Iran as he wrapped up three days of multi-billion dollar deal-making in Italy by saying the lifting of European sanctions had opened a new era of "win-win" collaboration.
Rouhani heads next to Paris, where his originally scheduled visit was called off after the Nov. 13 attacks.
Rouhani told reporters that he and Pope Francis discussed the need for religious leaders to speak out against extremism and terrorism during their audience Tuesday. But in an apparent reference to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Rouhani said freedom of expression "doesn't mean offending that which is sacred to other people's faith."
Francis was asked last year about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and suggested that a violent reaction could be expected when someone's faith was insulted. He said while violence must be condemned, anyone who insults his mother can expect to be punched.
Rouhani concurred and said Francis had told him the anecdote. While saying extremist violence must be condemned, "All religions are to be respected, their books and the millions of people who follow the faith," Rouhani said. Insulting them, he said, "creates division and doesn't help anyone."
Rouhani's visit was aimed at pushing Iran into a more prominent role on the world stage after the nuclear deal with Western powers ended most European economic sanctions on Tehran.
H said that Europe and the U.S. had lost out as a result of the sanctions, but that now European countries were in a position to not only recover their traditional trading relationship but improve on it. Italy signed some 14 agreements representing billions of euros in deals in areas such as energy, industrial machinery, shipbuilding and transportation.
Such a positive relationship could exist with the U.S. if Congress were to "end the tensions and hostility," Rouhani said.
"It's possible, but the key is in Washington, not in Tehran," he said. "At the same today, if American investors and the heads of the American economy, if they want to come to Iran and invest in my country, there are no problems from our point of view."
He added that it was in Washington's interest to no longer isolate Iran given the geopolitical reality of the region, saying it shouldn't be pressured by the Israeli and Jewish lobby, which he said "are very influential in the U.S."
"The Americans know well the important regional questions, that without Iranian presence, without the Iranian contribution, without Iranian opinion, these questions will not be resolved," he said. "The Middle East is a very sensitive, very delicate region. We hope that the Americans end the hostility and this enmity and rather than always look to the past let them look more to the future."