Press conference - Tehran, Iran

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP I am about to conclude my visit to Tehran, and I'm very pleased with the outcome of the discussions that I've had with the leadership here in Tehran. One of my objectives of the visit was to engage, again, with Iran on the issue of asylum seekers and returns to Iran. And I had hoped to be able to get agreement for a dialogue to recommence, and I have secured that agreement - that we will now have a consular dialogue to discuss this and other issues.

I invited Iranian officials to visit Australia to commence that dialogue, and Foreign Minister Zarif agreed that officials will come to Australia, hopefully in coming weeks. And we will commence discussions on how we can deal with Iranians who are found not to be refugees and are in detention centres either in Australia or in Manus or Naru. That was a very positive outcome.

The last occasion Australia had an agreement with Iran to take back so-called returns was back in 2003. And then Minister Philip Ruddock came here on a number of occasions to secure such an agreement. So I am pleased that we have been able to agree for a Consular Dialogue to be established. My meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif was long; it was productive, constructive, and we discussed a range of bilateral, regional and global issues.

I also met with President Rouhani. That likewise was a long meeting, in terms of the time spent with him but also the substance of the matters that we discussed. We discussed the issue of terrorism, the fact that Daesh is a more complicated situation, that it has aspirations to take over territory. We talked about ways that we could defeat this terrorist organisation and the level of cooperation that should exist between Australia and Iran and the Coalition more generally. I explained in considerable detail what we were doing in Iraq, what we had planned in terms of the extent of our mission, and emphasised that we were not in Syria, we were in Iraq, and that we were there with the consent and at the invitation of the Iraqi Government.

I also met with Secretary Shamkhani, the head of the National Security Council, and we had a very long and detailed discussion, also focusing on the issue of terrorism. My final meeting was with His Excellency Velayati, who is the International Advisor to the Supreme Leader, and he was a foreign minister. He also had a long and detailed conversation with me about a whole range of issues, particularly focusing on counter-terrorism.

Finally, I met last evening with a number of Iranian business representatives, particularly those who have been supporting the Australian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, and they are very keen to discuss a scenario - post the P5+1 negotiations and the successful conclusion of those negotiations - of the opportunities for enhancing the trade and investment between Australia and Iran. And they spoke of the many opportunities that existed for Australian businesses to engage again with Iran.

The topic of the nuclear agreement was also the subject of discussion with President Rouhani and the other leaders of the National Security Council here in Iran, so all-in-all I have been very pleased with the outcomes of the meetings that I've had here in Tehran.

JOURNALIST Minister, I want to ask you about Hassan Rouhani and the substance but, first of all, you mentioned the bazaar. I mean, it must have been great to get out and see a bit of normal Tehran, a bit of life, a bit of hustle and bustle that we don't often hear about in this country.

JULIE BISHOP I was encouraged by Foreign Minister Zarif to see more of Tehran, and he suggested that we go out into the streets to see the people going about their daily lives, and the suggestion was made that we go to a local market, and it was vibrant. It was bright.

A number of people spoke with me. A number of Australians who were in the market came up to say "Hello". And we took selfies, so it doesn't matter where one is in the world, you will always find an Australian prepared to have a selfie with a politician.

But I also was interested in the food - where it came from. Of course I was interested in the impact of the sanctions, and I think it was an interesting insight into the lives of the Iranian people. Clearly, the sanctions are taking their toll, but day-to-day the Iranian people are getting on with life. I also found an interesting level of concern about Australian-Iranian relations, and people seemed to be aware of the differences and the opportunities that existed between the two countries. They were very politically aware.

JOURNALIST Just on Hassan Rouhani, I mean by no means a starry-eyed reformer - very much an Orthodox member of the political elite here, and yet a pragmatic person elected with part of the supporter base that wanted to see change - and he has got to be credited at least in part with opening up, doesn't he? And easing nuclear tensions?

JULIE BISHOP Yes, he was very engaged on that issue. We spoke about the P5+1 negotiations in some detail. He was very optimistic. I asked him whether he thought that a successful agreement could be concluded within the timeframe, and he was very optimistic. He believed that there had been goodwill. He believed that there'd been appropriate give and take. He was looking for something that was balanced and I believe that this is a balanced agreement, in that there is give and take. There is reciprocity, and it seemed that it would be an agreement that would be acceptable to Iran.

We spoke about the stability and the security of this region, and the need for there to be a significant gesture on the part of Iran on the question of nuclear weapons, and that we wanted to see more stability in this region. He spoke about the volatility of the region at length, and we went through country-by-country area-by-area, and he gave a very detailed analysis of what he thought was the prognosis for those conflicts. I found it a most interesting discussion. And his willingness to engage on the question of failed refugee claims in Australia, for example, showed he was certainly across every detail of Iran's bilateral as well as regional relationships.

JOURNALIST Is he the leader, as some suggest he is, the reformer that might actually lead Iran back in from the cold of the last 30 years? Or wouldn't you judge him to be that?

JULIE BISHOP I gather that that is what he hopes will be the consequence of the conclusion of the P5+1 negotiations. From all of my discussions with the leadership here in Tehran, they see that as an opportunity to re-engage with the West particularly, and it is my hope that these negotiations will lead to a much more positive role for Iran to play. Iran has considerable influence in a number of countries in this region, and we would want that influence to be a positive force for good.

We are both on the same side of countering Daesh in Iraq, and we have very similar views on that terrorist organisation. Indeed, the description that the President and Foreign Minister Zarif gave of Daesh is the description that I would adopt, as a 'brutal, violent terrorist organisation that has no regard for boundaries, for governments, for humanity, for basic norms of civilisation'. And they are under no illusion that Daesh is a global and regional security threat.

It's a shocking terrorist organisation that must be defeated, and so we had a very positive discussion about why Australia was in Iraq, what we were doing and, likewise, I got some significant details from the leadership as to what Iraq meant to Iran in terms of the presence of Daesh and how determined they were to help Iraq rid the country of this organisation. But we also spoke about other areas where they feared Daesh will appear or take hold.

JOURNALIST Have you had an opportunity to be briefed on what happened in Melbourne - in the terrorism arrests?

JULIE BISHOP Not in detail, no.

JOURNALIST You know, your opposition to the death penalty for the Bali Nine is obvious - did you raise human rights matters here in terms of last week 43 people were hanged here for drug-type offences?

JULIE BISHOP Yes, we had a very detailed discussion on human rights, Foreign Minister Zarif and I, and I raised a number of specific cases with him. We spoke about the death penalty, and we also spoke about the fact that Iran has a number of citizens on death row in Indonesia as well. We agreed to pursue ways to continue the human rights dialogue, and so I anticipate that over the next few weeks our officials will come up with a range of options as to how we can continue a more formal human rights discussion with Iran.

JOURNALIST Were they trying to save the Iranians on death row in Indonesia?

JULIE BISHOP I will leave that to the Iranians to make public statements on that matter, but we did discuss the death penalty as it applies to Iranians and Australians in Indonesia. We discussed human rights issues here in Iran, and I raised specific cases with them. We agreed that we would try to find options - ways that we could continue this discussion in a more formal setting.

JOURNALIST But is it hard to have these discussions about human rights when they are killing 43 people in one week for drug offences?

JULIE BISHOP I have no difficulty raising human rights issues, and in the context of the discussions and the nature of the discussions, it was entirely appropriate for me to do so.

JOURNALIST Minister, before we closed yesterday the government spokesman said to us that they are certainly willing to engage in talks on the asylum question but that there was one not-negotiable baseline that Iran came from, and that was that Iranians who did not want to come back they would not take back. They needed an understanding that Iranians were willing to come home. Have you struck that objection, or position, from the talks you've had?

JULIE BISHOP I understand that is the position Iran adopts globally - that they will not take back those who are not willing to return. However, we had a very positive discussion about what we could do to encourage people to come home to Iran, including statements from Iran as to the positive treatment that they would receive on their return.

And we discussed the fact that the messaging needed to be much more positive from Iran, and that Australia had to be very clear that we will not resettle in Australia, people who are found not to be genuine refugees, and that message must be made very clear. I agreed with Foreign Minister Zarif that Australia must make its position very clear so that the propaganda that the people smugglers provide to some Iranians can be exposed for what it is. They are given false hope that there is an opportunity for them to be resettled in Australia. They will not be resettled in Australia.

So if Iran is able to provide assurance that they will be appropriately treated on return, then I believe that we will achieve a breakthrough. And that is what the senior officials talks will be about - how we can get the facts to these people that they will not be resettled in Australia and that they can return to Iran.

We talked about some of the allegations that have been made about ill treatment, of those who have converted to Christianity, for example, and I got very positive assurances from Foreign Minister Zarif that they would be properly treated, and that they would welcome their return. So I see an opportunity for us to continue this dialogue, and it will lead to some positive outcomes. But the message that people who are not genuine refugees have no chance of being resettled in Australia is one that I will continue to give here in Iran and elsewhere. There are many people who are genuine refugees, and those who are not, should not be taking their places.

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