Reuters: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denied on Saturday an Israeli newspaper report that he had described U.S. President Barack Obama as being "weak" on Iran during a meeting with Israel's prime minister in Rome.
By Stephen Brown
ROME (Reuters) – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denied on Saturday an Israeli newspaper report that he had described U.S. President Barack Obama as being "weak" on Iran during a meeting with Israel's prime minister in Rome.
The Hebrew-language Maariv reported in an opinion piece that when Berlusconi met Benjamin Netanyahu last Tuesday, Netanyahu said Obama would "find it difficult to hold dialogue" with Iran after protest erupted over Iran's disputed election result.
The paper said Berlusconi replied: "Obama is weak. He is in a difficult situation. I talk to people in America and they tell me there has been criticism of his weak response."
Maariv's online edition quoted Berlusconi saying Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had talked to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "and she has a firmer stance on Iran."
Italy's cabinet office had already denied the Maariv story, saying it "in no way reflected the spirit of the conversation."
But Berlusconi, who hosts Obama at a G8 summit next month, elaborated, saying: "I simply said the American administration was thinking about how to respond to Iran and someone in the Democratic Party insisted on Obama taking a stronger stance."
Before protests against Iran's disputed election result that returned hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Obama had signaled that America was open to dialogue with Iran.
The U.S. president has since warned that any attempt at dialogue or diplomacy could be affected by what he terms the "outrageous" violence of Iran's crackdown on the protesters.
Netanyahu, visiting Israel's firm ally Berlusconi at the start of his first European visit since taking office in March, thanked the Italian leader for speaking out firmly against the possibility of Iran making nuclear weapons.
But media reports say Netanyahu also asked Berlusconi to try to reduce Italy's substantial business dealings with Iran.
Berlusconi has already risked offending the Obama White House by repeatedly referring to Obama's "suntan" and, last year, openly backing Republican candidate John McCain, saying that they were both the same age, born a month apart in 1936.
But Berlusconi, who visited Obama on June 15, said on Saturday he had "always had a good opinion of Obama, especially lately after having dealings with Mrs Clinton and him and his team."
Berlusconi was close to Obama's predecessor George W. Bush and opposition newspapers in Italy had reported that Obama only reluctantly received Berlusconi in the White House this month.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem; Editing by Dominic Evans)