Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully is preparing to lead a trade mission to Iran amid a thawing of relations between the Islamic republic and the west.

"I'm going to Tehran in a few weeks' time and I'll be taking some commercial leaders with me. That's a specific invitation that's been issued by the Iranian Government," McCully told business leaders this week.

He acknowledged the sensitivity of dealing with Iran, saying New Zealand had to be careful not to "get ahead of the game" with regard to Iranian sanctions.

The lifting of sanctions, which could be early next year in return for restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme, is seen as a major business opportunity for firms worldwide.

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The deal follows more than a decade of diplomatic wrangling aimed at keeping Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Despite the diplomatic achievements, McCully said getting out of step with major western allies over Iran would be bad for NZ's reputation.

"For example, one sure way to kill the conversation on an FTA [free trade agreement] with Europe would be to get out of alignment with them over either Iran or Russia," he said.

A spokesman for McCully said it was too early to provide any more details on the trade mission.

Stewart Germann, chairman of the New Zealand Middle East Business Council, said in July that many of the council's member firms - which include Fonterra and Tegel Foods - saw Iran as a "significant market for potential business development".

*An earlier version of this article said New Zealand Trade and Enterprise chief executive Peter Chrisp had visited Iran recently. NZTE says Chrisp has never visited Iran.

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• New Zealand exported around $163 million worth of commodities, mostly dairy and other animal products, to Iran last year.

• Exports to the United Arab Emirates were worth $916 million in 2014, despite the UAE having a population of less than 10 million compared with almost 80 million in Iran.

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