VIENNA Austrian President Heinz Fischer said he hoped to build bridges with Iran but would not skirt human rights issues as he set off for Tehran on Monday, the first Western head of state to visit the Islamic Republic in more than a decade.
His visit follows the signing in July of a landmark accord between Iran and world powers on its disputed nuclear program.
Austria hosted the marathon talks.
"Austria is a land of dialogue. We reject violence. We want to build bridges and want to seize every opportunity to reduce tensions and promote a climate that promises a better future than if we remain stuck in confrontation," said Fischer, whose role in Austria is largely ceremonial.
But Fischer also said in an interview with broadcaster ORF that he would bring up Iran's human rights record during his three-day trip.
He is accompanied by a delegation of senior business executives.
Austria did not break relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Fischer, whose predecessor Thomas Klestil in 2004 was the last Western head of state to visit Iran, is scheduled to meet President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
He also due to meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a rare event for a visiting non-Muslim dignitary.
Ariel Muzicant, vice president of the European Jewish Congress, has criticized the visit, saying Austria's political leadership and business elite would "shake hands with murderers".
Stop the Bomb, an organization founded in Austria in 2007 and which opposes the Iranian government, joined in the criticism.
"The supreme leader Ali Khamenei, whose hand Fischer will shake tomorrow, openly threatens to this day the Jewish state (Israel) with destruction and denies the Holocaust," Stop the Bomb official Stephan Grigat said.
He said the trip would legitimize Tehran's policies.
(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Angus MacSwan)