France has reportedly refused to host a state dinner with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani because Rouhani asked the French to hold the wine. It's a rocky start to Rouhani's first ever official trip to Europe, which is slated for next week.
He will be the first Iranian president to visit Europe in over two decades, as tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West are beginning to ease in the wake of last summer's landmark nuclear agreement.
With sanctions against Iran loosening, Rouhani's trip to Europe is in many ways an investment junket — the Iranian leader will be meeting with corporate leaders across the continent, pitching Iran as a safe place to do business.
Rouhani's tour will begin with a meeting between Rouhani and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Pope Francis, and Italian businesspeople in Rome on Saturday.
Rouhani will then travel to France to deliver a speech at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). French President Francois Hollande had planned to host Rouhani at a formal state dinner that evening.
But according to France's RTL Radio, the Iranians reminded the French that Rouhani maintains a halal diet — which, according to Rouhani's interpretation of Islamic law, means he is forbidden from dining at a table where wine is served. The French would not change the menu.
The French radio station RTL reported that Holland offered instead to meet over an alcohol-free breakfast. But the Iranians demurred because the meeting would to be "cheap."
On Wednesday, French media reported that Holland and Rouhani will skip the food and drink and meet face-to-face on Tuesday for a chat about terrorism and the Syria conflict. But Hollande has been visible frustrated by the back and forth, and his advisor told the French daily Le Monde that the whole affair has been "ridiculous."
Over the course of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, France had been one of the most hardline participants, repeatedly pushing for more concessions from the Iranians. During a trade-mission to Iran earlier this year, French corporate executives complained publicly that their governments position was making it difficult to do business in Iran, and compete with other foreign companies.
Already one in four Iranians drive cars manufactured by the French company Peugeot. And during his planned visit, Rouhani and his advisors will meet with executives of half a dozen major French companies.
Over the past year, Germany and Italy have also been sending corporate delegations to the Islamic Republic to court Iranian investors and markets. As sanctions continue to slacken, the competition between Europeans over the Iranian market could become quite fierce.