ROME Israel's Avigdor Lieberman began his first European tour as Israeli foreign minister on Monday by describing Iran's nuclear programme as "a destabilising factor for the entire world."
"For us it is important to underline that the greatest problem at the moment in the Middle East is Iran; an Iran that is becoming nuclear and is becoming, or has already become, a destabilising factor for the entire world," he said in Rome.
Lieberman said he hoped his European tour, which will also take in France, the Czech Republic and Germany, would "promote the upgrading of our relations with Europe."
The European Union, which many Israelis regard as latently pro-Arab, says it will upgrade ties only if new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces a two-state vision of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel.
Lieberman said Israel's staunch ally Italy was the natural first stop on his maiden trip as minister. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, had said he would urge Lieberman to "lower the tone of his statements," Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper quoted the suave Italian as saying before the visit.
Right-winger Lieberman has a reputation for blunt talking and angered Israel's Arab minority by questioning their loyalty to the Jewish state. Last year he said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell" if he did not want to visit Israel.
Lieberman told a news conference it was too soon to expect the five-month-old government, where his Yisrael Beitenu party is the junior partner to Netanyahu's rightist Likud, "to have all its diplomatic plans ready."
"But we intend to take the initiative and not to spend our time on declarations and slogans," Lieberman said. He contrasted that with what he said were 16 years of meetings and peace proposals since the Oslo Accord but "no concrete results."
"Our aim is to reach a situation of lasting stability that will also ensure economic prosperity," he said.
Lieberman plans to lobby Europe to get tough on Iran whose nuclear programme and support for Palestinian militants are seen by Israel as threats. The United States and its Western allies suspect Iran's nuclear work is really aimed at producing bombs.
"The international community and the United States and, perhaps even more, Arab countries in the region, are worried about Iranian influence," said the Italian foreign minister Frattini at the joint news conference with Lieberman.
"Understanding for Israel's concerns must be total."
But Italy, as current G8 chairman, wants to involve Iran in talks about terrorism, drugs and organised crime on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the subject of an international meeting to be held in Italy in June.
"If Iran is ready to contribute to resolving issues on the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, we have a duty to listen to them," said Frattini.
"We won't talk about the nuclear dossier, where we fully share the rigorous position against nuclear proliferation. They are two completely separate issues."
(Reporting by Stephen Brown; editing by Robert Woodward)