Iran's Zarif tells European lawmakers Islamist militancy also their problem

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told European Union lawmakers on Tuesday militant Islam was also a European problem as he defended Iran’s involvement in Syria’s civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks after attending the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

European parliamentarians quizzed Zarif about alleged human rights violations in Iran, Iranian defense spending and nuclear activity and Tehran’s stance on Middle East conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes, spurring a large influx of refugees into Europe.

Radicalized European citizens, often with Muslim immigrant backgrounds, have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the shooting and bombing rampage in Paris that killed 130 people in November.

“We all need to understand why some who behead innocent individuals in our part of the world speak European languages with perfect accents. Why is it that this is happening?” Zarif told the European Parliament session.

“You feel the consequences of the growth of extremism in our region in terms of refugees that come to Europe, in terms of the spread of unfortunate terrorist incidents in various European cities. Extremism cannot be contained in one country or one region, it’s a global menace, requiring a global response.”

In Syria, an offensive by government forces backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-backed militias has regained significant ground from rebels in the north near Turkey’s frontier, dimming prospects that a truce deal hatched by world powers in Munich last week will take hold soon.

Zarif said Tehran had no “boots on the ground” in Syria but only “military advisers” on the invitation of Assad.

“We will move out military advisers when the local government deems it necessary for us to remove them,” Zarif said. “Why is Iran there? Because Iran believes that the alternative right now - either in Iraq or in Syria - is not a democratic government but Daesh.”

Daesh is a pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Syria’s war created a breeding ground for the ultra-radical Islamic State, whose insurgents now control large swathes of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Russia has come under criticism for not ceasing air strikes in Syria since the Munich agreement and has faced accusations that it was using lengthy and complex Syria diplomacy only to buy time to turn the tide of the war on the ground.

Zarif challenged that, saying: “Who is going to impose the military solution in Syria? Nobody. Russia can’t impose a military solution either ... We need a political solution.”

He criticized Saudi Arabia, Shi’ite Iran’s arch-foe in the region and a conservative Sunni Muslim monarchy that has now thrown its weight behind some rebel groups fighting Assad.

“Are we talking about democracies in our region criticizing Bashar al-Assad?” Zarif said. “This is not about democracy, this is not about the rights of the Syrian people. This is all about a convoluted, perverted concept of regional equilibrium, which they believe has been disturbed and they want a redress.”

Turkey, which shares Riyadh’s desire to see Assad go, has called for a ground operation in Syria and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates expressed readiness to send in troops as part of an international coalition against Islamic State, providing Washington takes the lead.

Asked to comment on talk of a ground operation in Syria, Zarif said in Brussels: “That’s dangerous, an attempt to get others involved in even larger numbers and more dangerous extent in the fighting in the region.”

Editing by Mark Heinrich and Tom Miles