rom the outside Iran's embassy to the Holy See is an unimpressive-looking place. The terraced house, in Rome's expensive Parioli district, is in urgent need repair and a tatty black Mercedes sits idle on the forecourt.
Yet go inside, and the embassy is a hive of activity. In terms of staff numbers, it ranks as one of the largest consulates accredited to the Holy See, larger than that of the United States. The reason, according to members of Rome's diplomatic community, is that the ambassador, like many other ambassadors from Islamic countries, continues to place a high premium on the Vatican's influence in world affairs, and particularly its work in interreligious dialogue.
But when it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions and its threats to annihilate Israel. are the ears of its staff listening to Pope Benedict XVI and the Holy See? In his Easter Day Urbi et Orbi address, the Holy Father made two indirect references to Iran. On nuclear power, he called for an honourable solution to be found "through serious and honest negotiations". He then underlined that the international community "re-affirms Israel's just right to exist in peace", and called for a Palestinian state "that is truly their own".
That the Holy Father chose to raise these issues during such an important address shows the height of his concern about the situation, according to sources close to the Vatican. Officials from both camps are also in regular talks over the matter, leading seine to speculate on whether the Church could play some mediatory role.
There is mixed opinion about this. Sonic consider Vatican mediation unfeasible: the nuclear issue is too technical, they say, requiring the sanction and expertise of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Dialogue is also being undertaken by Britain, France and Germany, albeit with no success.
"The Vatican has been very strong on Holocaust denial and the threats against the existence of Israel, so how could they broker a resolution?" queried one diplomatic source close the Vatican. "It's hard to see what any international organisation can do — here is a country developing nuclear weapons, has concealed that fact from the international community for 18 years, and is using the language of annihilation, so I can't see the Vatican being willing or able to do something that-the IAEA and the Secretary General of the United Nations haven't done already." Were the Holy See to become more involved in direct mediation, he said, there would also be a danger of' "opening up another front, with risks all round".
Other diplomats, however, are more optimistic. They point to Iran's healthy, 50-year diplomatic relationship with the Vatican, and the country's obvious esteem for the Holy See — factors, they say, which provide valuable capital for the Secretariat of State to exert some positive influence on an increasingly dangerous and hostile nation. "The Vatican can't take a leading role in any discussions or Iran would play them and use the Vatican much like Iraq did to help their cause, but it can exert some pressure from behind the scenes which could lead them to the negotiating table", said one diplomatic source. Were the Vatican to succeed in doing so, he said, it would offer Iran some welcome and positive publicity. "Even in their state of alienation, they still understand the value of public relations, and good relations with the Vatican is worth gold in PR terms."
Threats by the Iranians to annihilate Israel are not new. But if Iran's nuclear threat is to be removed, one way to achieve that, according to Fr Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, would be to form a viable Palestinian state, free of corruption and resentment. The other option would be to somehow lessen the theocratic nature of Iran that has, for too long, manipulated Islam for political gain. In this. the Vatican may also have a role to play. "We cannot be patient forever," said Fr Lacunza-Balda. "We need to say enough is enough of this manipulation of religion. Those states who use religion in this way need to be condemned and told: you have no basis for it, you're not helping the Palestinians, you're not helping yourself, and you are poisoning the vision of Islam."
Rome Correspondent: Edward Pentin E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org