Iranian minister defends missile launch, human rights record in NZ

Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif
Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif

Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif is in New Zealand to help foster a closer trade relationship following the lifting of sanctions -- but his time here has not been controversy-free.

Iran caused outraged earlier this month by launching ballistic missiles, reportedly with anti-Israel threats imprinted on them. The country's questionable human rights record, high execution rate that includes children and support of Syria's Assad regime have also been criticised during Zarif's visit.

But trade between New Zealand and Iran will be of great benefit to both countries and could reach $1 billion per annum or beyond, Mr Zarif claimed on The Nation programme this morning.

Mr Zarif says the missile tests were important for his country's defence and should not be considered provocative.

"Iran was attacked by Saddam Hussein of Iraq, we were the victims of the only known chemical weapons attack in the recent history of inter-state conflict -- nobody came to our assistance," said Mr Zarif.

"We learned the hard way that we need to defend ourselves. We need to be prepared for our defence and missiles are the primary means of Iran's defence. As far as provocations are concerned, Iran has not provoked anybody. We have shown in the past 250 years that we will not take any action against anybody."

Despite what critics are claiming, Mr Zarif insists the missile tests do not violate the recently signed nuclear deal.

"These missiles are for conventional defence only. The US State Department -- which is not the closest friend of Iran -- has been very clear that these tests do not violate the nuclear deal," said Mr Zarif.

"We in Iran, like in New Zealand, believe that nuclear weapons do not augment anybody's security. That is why New Zealand and Iran are at the forefront of calling for a world free from nuclear weapons."

However, Mr Zarif stopped short of condemning the anti-Israel message carried by the missiles.

"It's not my message, but it's an indication that people in Iran are fed up with others threatening them," said Mr Zarif.

"We have stated very clearly what our policy is - we will not take offensive action against anybody."

With regards to Iran's human rights record, Mr Zarif talked up ways in which his country can be considered more advanced than others in the Middle East and regardless, the issue should not be considered in international trade deals.

"Iran is the only country in the region where governments are changed through elections. People vent their frustrations at the ballot box rather than in the streets and through extremism and violence," says Mr Zarif.

"New Zealand has trade agreements with other countries that violate the most fundamental human rights of their citizens and nobody seems to care. Human rights should not be a vehicle for political manipulation. Human rights is an important area and all governments, including Iran, could make improvements."

On the topic of Iran's support for the Assad regime -- the perpetrators of most of the 250,000 deaths in the Syrian conflict in what the UN says amounts to the crime against humanity of 'extermination' -- Mr Zarif says his country is supporting Assad's 'legitimate' government based on the UN principles.

"What must be done immediately, is to have a ceasefire and to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria," says Mr Zarif.

"Then we have to form a national unity government, then work out a reconciliation between the Syrian people and a constitution through which the people of Syria will decide how they should to be governed. Maybe the future of Syria will not include a powerful president - we're not the judge of that.

"Whatever decision the Syrian people make, Iran will respect."