Press conference on arrival - Tehran, Iran

  • Transcript, E&OE
18 April 2015

JULIE BISHOP Good morning to the intrepid Australian press crew. I'm not quite sure of the hour but I'm pleased to have arrived in Tehran. This is an important visit because Australia and Iran have a number of significant bi-lateral, regional and international issues to discuss. I will be having a lengthy meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif tomorrow. A call on President Rouhani is also planned for tomorrow. One of the most significant and vital issues to be discussed is the situation in Iraq and our involvement there and our common purpose with Iran in defeating Daesh, the barbaric terrorist organisation that has declared a caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq and I expect that to be the subject of quite detailed discussion. Otherwise there are a range of issues that we propose to canvas, following on from several meetings I have had with Foreign Minister Zarif. My first meeting with him was in September of 2013 shortly after I became foreign minister and we've had subsequent meetings including at the UN General Assembly Leaders Week last September. Any questions?

JOURNALIST Why you? I mean it's been very… Not many people have done what you've done in terms of come from the western world political leaders to Iran. I mean it really has been a no-go zone for the west. How did you get invited?

JULIE BISHOP I was invited by Foreign Minister Zarif and we had a very lengthy discussion at our meeting in September in New York and we discussed a range of bi-lateral issues and he invited me to come to Tehran as soon as possible to further our discussions - issues including the fact that both Australia and Iran are members of the Bali Process and we are both committed to dismantling the people smuggling trade; and the issue of people smugglers and asylum seekers in our region; and subsequent to that there have been a number of developments, particularly Australia's involvement in the situation in Iraq; and the fact that we have accepted an invitation from the Iraqi Government to support them in building the capacity of their defence forces to defeat Daesh.

You may recall that I visited Baghdad in October of 2014 after my meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif and negotiated an agreement for Australian defence personnel to be in Baghdad at the request of the Iraqi Government. So those developments have occurred subsequent to the invitation being extended to me which has made my visit here all the more important.

JOURNALIST Minister would it be fair to say that you're trying to strike a new tone in terms of the ties that Australia has with Iran by making these visits? To move away from the suspicions that characterised the last decade or more?

JULIE BISHOP Well there have also been changes in Iran's attitude, the fact that there are now negotiations underway to finalise the framework agreement that was struck in Switzerland between the P5+1 and Iran. That issue has obviously developed subsequent to my meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif last September and there are opportunities for Australia and Iran to engage in a number of ways on a bi-lateral level. We have about 10,000 Iranians come to Australia each year. Eight-thousand on visas, about 2000 as skilled migrants or part of family reunion arrangements. There are a number of educational opportunities, trade opportunities and of course the progress that's being made on the framework agreement may well change a number of countries' relationships with Iran in the coming months or years.

JOURNALIST If a deal goes ahead, how would an Iranian nuclear deal change the relationship with Australia?

JULIE BISHOP It would depend very much on the deal that was struck of course and the consequences for the sanctions regime for example. Australia has sanctions in place against Iran so it would depend very much on the terms of the deal and the consequences for the sanctions regime both at the United Nations levels and at a bi-lateral level.

JOURNALIST If they were lifted, I mean whether it's immediately or phased I mean what does that mean for Australia? Much?

JULIE BISHOP Well Australia would obviously consider the position at the time; we have not eased sanctions as others have done In recent times so we would make a decision at that time. But there would of course be opportunities for us to more deeply engage with Iran if an acceptable agreement were reached.

JOURNALIST Minister you nominated Iraq as an issue to discuss with Iran, what aspects of that need hammering out with Iran? What would you like to see Iran do? Perhaps closer engagement with..?

JULIE BISHOP It's more of an information exchange to advise Iran of Australia's role in Iraq; that we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government; that our role is noncombat; that we are there in a military training capacity and also involved in the airstrikes which have been of considerable importance in recent months in defeating the momentum that Daesh had achieved previously; and to confirm that ours is not a long term commitment; that we have put a two year timeframe on the Building Partner Capacity mission. So to explain our role there and likewise to gain more information from Iran as to their involvement; the support that they're giving to the Shia militia; the role that they see Iran playing supporting the Iraqi Government in the development of their capacity of the Iraqi security forces.

JOURNALIST Are you at all uncomfortable about Iran's role overseeing or sponsoring militia to carry out its conflict in Iraq particularly given many of the militia were likely those firing on Australian and US forces a decade ago?

JULIE BISHOP Well clearly this is an area for discussion and one of the reasons that I'm here - to discuss our respective engagement in Iraq. There has to be a very clear understanding between Iran and Australia as to our respective roles and that's part of my reason for being here.

JOURNALIST Did Zarif give you any clear idea of why he wanted you to come specifically? Was it a fairly casual invitation or was he quite specifically seeking you out?

JULIE BISHOP Well meetings were specifically arranged as bi-lateral meetings, these were not discussions over a cup of coffee in the corridor. They were actually set bi-lateral meetings and during the course of the most recent meeting in September a specific invitation was issued to me to continue the very productive discussions we were having about the issue of people smuggling, the issue of returns and the issue of greater two way engagement between Iranian and Australian people.

JOURNALIST Do you think there might be any room for movement on the Iranian side in terms of taking back asylum seekers who don't want to go back?

JULIE BISHOP The Iranian Government is part of the Bali Process as is the Australian Government and we are very active in the Bali Process in seeking support regionally to dismantle the people smuggling trade that preys on vulnerable people. And so this is an obvious area of interest for us, given the number of Iranians who are in detention in one form or another in Australia and in the offshore processing centres in Manus and Nauru. So it's obviously a matter of concern for both countries and I hope that we can find some progress and hopefully there'll be a very productive discussion with Foreign Minister Zarif. But I'm sure that after our meeting tomorrow we're holding a press conference, and we'll be able to update you.

JOURNALIST Minister [inaudible] of the really frosty relationship between Iran and our good ally the US over the last three and a half decades, what signals have you sought or have you got from Washington as to how they feel about you being here?

JULIE BISHOP I have kept the United States informed of my intention to visit here and they are supportive of it.



JOURNALIST They're obviously keen to hear what you've got to say once you've been [indistinct]?

JULIE BISHOP Well clearly the United States is deeply engaged with Iran and has been over the last few weeks and months over the framework agreement and Secretary of State John Kerry has spent a considerable amount of time on this issue, has spent a lot of time with Foreign Minister Zarif. So of course it's a matter of interest to both the United States and to Iran as to how other countries are viewing the progress of the P5+1 negotiations and I will certainly be encouraging Iran to continue to negotiate with the United States. There is a timeframe of 30 June and hopefully an acceptable and appropriate, balanced agreement can be struck by then.

JOURNALIST The - Mr Zarif has been involved in the nuclear talks very comprehensively involved. He's must be an extremely busy man, he's looking to throw that to the light of social invitations to counterparts to please come and visit Tehran. The - there's clearly some purpose that he has in mind, where does Australia fit into the whole thing? Are we - does it demonstrate some significance in our sort of standing with the United States, is that part of it or is it something else?

JULIE BISHOP Australia is a top 20 country in anyone's language. We're the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world; we are a significant member of a number of international fora. We've recently been a non-permanent member on the Security Council. Australia and Iran are both members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association which Australia is chairing at present. Iran was represented in Perth recently at the Indian Ocean Rim Association meeting. We have a number of common interests in maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean rim and so I think it's time for Australia and Iran to have this meeting and clearly Iran, through Foreign Minister Zarif, agreed that it's time for an Australian Foreign Minister to visit this country. It's been some 12 years since an Australian minister was here.

Incidentally the last minister to visit Iran was Philip Ruddock in October 2003 where he discussed the issue of returns at that time. There were still issues with the people smuggling trade but shortly thereafter the Howard Government had dismantled the people smuggling trade which of course then was reinvigorated under the Labor Government from 2007 so I'm back here now to take up where Philip Ruddock left off in 2003.

JOURNALIST Minister how is it for you to be back here, to come back to Iran, headscarves are obligatory in Iran, did you personally regard it as an imposition for you to have to wear a headscarf coming here or were you tempted to make a statement in support of women's rights and not wear one?

JULIE BISHOP Well as a matter of fact I wear scarves and hats and headgear quite often as part of my everyday wear, so it was no imposition on me to wear a scarf as I am now.

JOURNALIST Why did you take it off in here then?

JULIE BISHOP It's more comfortable.

JOURNALIST Minister are you of the view as many commentators are that there's now a really significant thawing in relations between Iran and the west going on or do you think there is perhaps a little bit too much excitement too soon?

JULIE BISHOP I believe there has been some incremental change but much will depend on the outcome of the framework agreement and the conclusion of the negotiations by 30 June. Should those negotiations not produce an acceptable agreement, then of course it would be detrimental I believe for Iran and also for those countries who are seeking to more deeply engage with Iran. It would obviously be difficult for Australia to take the deeper engagement any further if there was no ability to strike a deal on the nuclear program so this was an important issue but aside from that Australia has bi-lateral issues that we need to and will discuss with Iran.

JOURNALIST You said before that Australia has increased sanctions in recent times as others have done. Is Australia pulling back on its own autonomous sanctions something that you might have on the table during this trip?

JULIE BISHOP This would depend very much on the negotiated agreement by 30 June by the P5+1.

JOURNALIST Nothing before then?

JULIE BISHOP I can't envisage that but it will be a matter of discussion with my counterpart foreign minister.

JOURNALIST Israelis have seemed convinced that - or was it Netanyahu is convinced clearly that this would only be stalling the development of the bomb by Iraq - by Iran sorry. Do you believe that or do you have concern about that?

JULIE BISHOP Well of course any agreement must be on the basis that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a bottom line for any agreement. So if the United States and the other members of the negotiations - if the P5+1 - satisfied that the agreement is on the basis that there be no nuclear weapon development by Iran then that's an acceptable bottom line.

Okay time for you all to go bed, thank you very much, see you tomorrow.

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