March 11, 2014
Erdogan visits Iran to improve ties
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Iran to bolster trade and energy ties, state TV said, in what also looked like a bid to defuse tensions over Syria by capitalising on Tehran's diplomatic opening to regional rivals and the West.
Iran has been a strong strategic ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising against him, while Turkey has been one of his fiercest critics, supporting his opponents and giving refuge to rebel fighters.
But Iran's election last June of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who says he wants to thaw its ties with the West, and shared concern over the rise of al Qaeda in Syria, have spurred hopes of a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement.
The United States believes detente between Turkey and Iran is important to wider stability in the Middle East, a strategic breakthrough Washington hopes to achieve from talks that world powers are pursuing with Tehran to curb its nuclear programme.
Erdogan met Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as Rouhani, whose foreign policy of "prudence and moderation" has eased Tehran's international isolation and revived contact with longtime arch-enemy Washington.
"Our relations with Turkey have entered a new phase and we hope this trend continues. Besides serving the interests of the two countries, we hope our dialogue (with Turkey) serve regional interests as well," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told reporters in Tehran.
"As two neighbours and Muslim countries, Iran and Turkey enjoy many commonalities and many cooperation opportunities."
Analysts said the main focus of Erdogan's visit was expanding economic cooperation, finessing any political disputes for now. "Considering that the economy and energy ministers are accompanying Erdogan, we can say this trip is business-targeted," said Tehran-based analyst Hossein Foroughi.
Erdogan signed three trade deals on Wednesday before leaving Tehran to fly home, Iranian state television said.
"Today we had a good chance to review bilateral ties," Erdogan said in remarks translated into Farsi by Iranian television as it showed him meeting Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.
"I would like to mention specifically, and to express my satisfaction with, the agreement we signed in the preferential trade field," he said. "It is obvious that we import from Iran crude oil and gas, which are strategic energy sources, and we (will be) able to increase the volume of these imports."
Ankara deems Iranian gas too expensive compared with other suppliers like Russia and Azerbaijan, an assertion rejected by Tehran. Turkey's Petroleum Pipeline Corporation applied to an international court of arbitration in 2012 for a ruling on Iran's gas pricing. The case is still pending.
US Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen, who visited Turkey just before Erdogan's Iran trip, warned the Turkish government against any rapid improvement of trade and economic links with the Islamic Republic before a final nuclear agreement is struck, according to Turkish media.
"Businesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off. The day may come when Iran is open for business, but the day is not today," Zaman newspaper quoted Cohen as saying.