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EU, Iran pledge deeper ties after high-level EU visit to Tehran

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union said on Saturday it would support Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation but it urged Tehran to refrain from further ballistic missile tests after the highest-level talks with Iran in more than a decade.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a working lunch with Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (not pictured) at Australia's Parliament House in Canberra March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Lukas Coch/AAP

Seeking to capitalise on last year’s nuclear deal, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini led a team of seven European commissioners on a one-day trip to Tehran where they agreed to cooperate on everything from banking to energy to transport issues.

“It is in the European interest and in the Iranian interest to make sure that banks engage and feel confident to come to Iran and facilitate and support this new economic engagement,” Mogherini said at a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran.

With a view to opening a full EU diplomatic mission in Iran an EU liaison team will be sent to Tehran, Mogherini and Zarif said in a joint statement.

“Today is a new beginning in Iran and EU relations. We hope this cooperation between the Iranian nation and European Union brings about shared interests and global development,” Zarif was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

He also urged the United States to remove obstacles to Iran gaining access to the global financial system, saying this was the main goal of its nuclear talks with world powers.

The EU executive’s visit comes on the heels of trips to Tehran by European governments seeking to revive ties with Iran after the July 2015 nuclear deal.

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The EU and Iran will exchange business missions in the second half of this year and Brussels will assist Iran in becoming a member of the WTO, the statement said.

On the issue of human rights, which also figured in discussions, Mogherini said the EU would continue to be firm on its principles while maintaining dialogue with Iran.

The EU is troubled by the more than 1,000 executions in Iran last year, its ballistic missiles and its funding of blacklisted militant groups.

Mogherini repeated that she did not see Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests as a breach of the nuclear accord between Iran and world powers, though she added it was a “worrying step”.

“This doesn’t mean that we are not concerned,” Mogherini said. “On the contrary, we see this as a worrying step ... and we are encouraging (Iran) to abstain from further steps.”

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ support for President Bashar al-Assad puts Tehran directly at odds with the West in Syria.

Mogherini said the nuclear deal was important for improving the security landscape in the Middle East and the two sides had agreed to work together to foster dialogue in the region.

“Any step that could pass different messages in the region, that could escalate tensions is not welcome from our side,” she said.

Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai; Editing by Richard Balmforth