Rouhani’s Visit To Italy Sparks Awkward Culture Clash

This article can also be found at Tremr.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Italy last week on a five-day trip aimed at rebuilding economic relations with Europe. The visit, which took place after the curbing of Iran’s nuclear program and Europe’s consequent lifting of sanctions, included meetings with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Capitoline Museum in Rome after Italian firms signed business deals with Iran. Controversy sparked when it became publicly known that several of Italy’s famous, well-loved and naked statues at the museum were covered up in lieu of Rouhani’s visit, as public characterizations of nudity are prohibited in the Islamic republic.

While no one really knows who made the executive call to conceal the statues, rumor has it that the decision was based on an attempt to appease Rouhani after he signed billions of dollars in agreements.

The decision to cover up the statues has prompted endless backlash toward Renzi and the Italian government on the grounds of being “spineless and selling out Italian values.” Some Italian politicians denounced the move as “cultural submission.”

Could this awkward scenario be telling of future culture-clash situations, given Iran’s grand emergence back onto the world stage? Not improbable, given the historical state of distrust between the Western and Arab worlds. It seems evident that neither world is completely ready for the other yet.

Nonetheless, Rouhani has established himself as an historic figure in Iranian politics and in international relations. Elected in June 2013, he is largely considered a moderate Iranian politician, evidently more so than his hard-lining predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His election victory “forced Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei]…to agree to negotiations with the international community over Iran’s nuclear program, a tacit acknowledgment that Iran had violated the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;” one large step towards “normalization” within Iran and in relation to the rest of the world.

The recent agreements reached by Iran and Europe involving the curbing of Iran’s nuclear program mark the end of a 12-year standoff between the two, paving the way for Iran to come out of its long-standing state of international isolation. Iranian banks can now begin to re-establish links with the European financial system and private firms can pursue business opportunities without fear of penalization from the West.

Regardless of the landmark diplomatic and economic agreements reached, Europe and Iran still have far to go before they can claim to fully understand and cooperate with one another.

At the most fundamental of principles, Iran and the West have to learn to cooperate with one another on a cultural level before they can truly see eye-to-eye on a diplomatic level. The concealing of the statues was simply an illustration of the cultural differences between Iran, an Islamic nation, and Italy, a Roman Catholic (but largely secular) nation. The two worlds have been at odds for years now and one milestone agreement will not repair the historically rocky relationship overnight.

Concealing the statues was likely a well-meaning decision, but perhaps Italy could have respected Iranian cultural values without covering up its own renowned and beautiful works of art that are so beloved in Italian culture and throughout the world.

Photo courtesy of


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