TEHRAN: Former French socialist prime minister Michel Rocard arrived in Tehran early on Saturday on an unofficial three-day visit to meet with several ranking Iranian officials, diplomats said.

Rocard, whose trip was not coordinated by the French foreign ministry, may meet Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, French daily Le Figaro reported quoting his entourage.

The visit first planned for April but postponed after the 81-year-old Rocard was hospitalised in Stockholm in late March, comes days after the May 6 election of socialist Francois Hollande as France's president.

According to Le Figaro, the visit aims at “boosting relations" between Paris and Tehran, which were seriously strained under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

“We hope his visit will facilitate fresh contacts between the next French government and Iran," Michel Dubois, an aide who is accompanying Rocard during his visit, told Le Figaro.

The paper said it was not clear whether Rocard is carrying a message from Hollande for Iranian officials.

Rocard's visit comes as Iran is preparing for a new round of talks with world powers in Baghdad on May 23 that will focus on its disputed nuclear programme.

France under Sarkozy was the strong voice in the European Union to advocate harsh US-backed economic sanctions against Iran over Western suspicions it seeks a weapons capability masked by its civilian nuclear programme.

France also became one of the most vocal critics of human rights violations in Iran, including the regime's crackdown on opposition supporters, activists and journalists in the aftermath of a disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Tensions between the two countries were exacerbated by the July 2009 arrest of Clotilde Reiss, a young French lecturer at the University of Isfahan accused of attending anti-government protests and convicted on espionage charges before being released on bail in May 2010.

In recent months, France greatly reduced its diplomatic mission in Tehran and shut down its cultural and economic sections following the ransacking of the British embassy by pro-regime protesters in December.

On Monday Iran expressed hope that Hollande's presidency would usher in a “new era" in its relations with Paris.

Hollande, however, had said in his election campaign that if elected, France would maintain its “firm position" on Iran, whose nuclear work “is a vital danger for Israel and peace in the world."

Iran insists its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling the possession of atomic weapons “a great sin."

But the United States and many of its EU allies believe Iran has been working towards developing a nuclear weapons capability. The EU is poised to enact sanctions Sarkozy pushed to be imposed on Iranian oil on July 1.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012