updated 8/31/2006 1:13:17 PM ET 2006-08-31T17:13:17

Long considered something of a junior partner among Europe’s elite nations, Italy is carving out a hefty role in world affairs.

Rome is contributing the largest contingent to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, has claimed a role in negotiations with Iran and is rallying European governments around the idea that Italy can form a counterweight to American might.

After five years under a center-right government that allied with Washington, Italy under new center-left Premier Romano Prodi is making its voice heard around the globe.

“We have contributed to opening a new phase in the world,” Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said in remarks this week to the Italian press. “We have gone back to multilateralism. The United Nations is a leading actor, Europe is central, Italy is back on the scene.”

It’s a world view that contrasts with Prodi’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, who linked his nation’s destiny to the United States and staunchly supported the war in Iraq.

Taking lead on Lebanon
The Lebanon crisis provided Prodi — whose government was given little chance of making a big impact after winning a razor-thin margin in April elections — an ideal platform for showing the world the new Italy.

Italy has no colonial history in the region and enjoys close relations with both Israel and the Arab world, making it a natural leader in peace discussions. Prodi’s former role as president of the European Union administrative body also gives him clout among European governments.

The new government’s first major diplomatic foray was inviting foreign ministers in July to discuss the fighting in Lebanon. The meeting ended without an agreement for a cease-fire, but raised Italy’s profile and established D’Alema as a powerful advocate for solutions to the crisis.

Then Italy pressed a reluctant Europe to commit troops to Lebanon by pledging a contingent of 2,500 soldiers and offering to lead the international force. After an embarrassing hesitation, European nations assembled a force of 6,900 — about half the U.N. troops to be sent overall. Italy will take over command of the force in 2007.

Rome’s diplomacy has won international praise.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana thanked Italy for its “initiative and commitment,” in remarks published Thursday in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.

Leading the way in Europe?
Avi Pazner, a former Israeli ambassador to Italy and currently a government spokesman, said Rome’s commitment persuaded other European nations to offer troops to the international force.

Emboldened by his government’s diplomatic success, D’Alema claimed a role for his country in negotiations with Iran, noting Italy’s vast economic interests in that country, and he said Rome would use its seat on the U.N. Security Council starting in January “to make the United Nations hear the voice of the European Union better and with more force.”

Italy’s close ties with Iran, a main backer of Hezbollah, may also give it leverage in negotiations on Lebanon. Italy is Tehran’s leading EU trading partner, with an annual exchange worth $6 billion, according to Italy’s institute for foreign trade.

“Traditionally we are not blinded by the friend-or-foe logic, we try to find a common ground,” said Italian analyst Alessandro Politi. “This is a concept deeply rooted in Italy’s politics.”

D’Alema, a former communist, has been particularly active in proposing initiatives to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. He suggested recently that international troops should be considered for Gaza and urged Europe to pay more attention to the southern Mediterranean countries — a key region for Italy.

“This mission has the stated political aim of relaunching Europe on its most difficult issue, that of security and defense,” said Politi.

“The mission is certainly a high-risk one, and things can undoubtedly go wrong,” he added. “But Italy has decided to run these risks because it knew it was necessary: for its national interests, for Europe’s general interest, as well as for its traditional efforts in finding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.”

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