The tantalising prospect of Iran and Europe bonding as friends has acquired fresh symbolism with the visit to Tehran by European Union (EU) foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who also represents the West during nuclear talks between Iran and the six global powers.

Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani, who has played a big part in steering Tehran and the global powers towards negotiations, was quick to point out that Ms. Ashton's visit, as the representative of the 28-nation bloc, was emblematic of a new beginning in his country's ties with Europe. Mr. Rouhani stressed when the EU's top diplomat called on him on Sunday that "your trip as the representative of 28 European countries' foreign policy has a political meaning beyond" a normal visit by a European official.

"We view your visit as the EU's will for a new move," he observed.

Significant groundwork seemed to have preceded Ms. Ashton's visit. Top diplomats from Italy, Sweden, Belgium and Spain had already spent quality time in Tehran. The presence in the Iranian capital of a delegation of 141 French businessmen and traders in February signalled that Europe, entangled in its economic woes, was searching for lucrative business opportunities in Iran.

There were ample signs of reciprocation from sanctions-hit Iran, whose leadership is trying to establish, with some difficulty, that a fruitful relationship with the West is possible without sacrificing the core values of the Islamic revolution.

The Iranian daily Kayhan noted that several Iranian lawmakers view Ms. Ashton's visit as the opening of a new chapter in economic ties between Tehran and the European bloc.

The daily quoted Ali Muhammad Ali, a member of the Planning and Budget Committee of Majlis (Iranian Parliament) as saying: "The presence of the EU foreign policy chief in Iran will open a new door to economic interactions between Iran and Europe, and we should also seize this opportunity".

He said that Iran needed to draw on Europe's experience in areas such as information technology, oil and gas, transportation and heavy industries. Ms. Ashton's visit follows solid but incremental progress in Iran's nuclear dialogue with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which took off in November 2013 in Geneva.

Yet, the two sides have a mountain to climb before a comprehensive nuclear deal can be signed. During a media conference on Sunday, Ms. Ashton declared that much more work was required before a final nuclear deal - the keystone for a fully normalised relationship between Iran and the sextet could be signed. She pointed out that the on-going negotiations have proved "difficult" and "challenging".

"There is no guarantee we'll succeed".

Ms. Ashton's Iranian counterpart and host Javad Zarif, stressed during his turn at the podium that it was "up to the other side, first, to fulfill its commitments under the Geneva agreement with regard to the first steps, and also come to the negotiating table with a desire, decision and commitment to reach a mutually acceptable agreement".

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