Middle East

Turkey, Iran eye trade boost despite tensions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second left, welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

TEHRAN/ANKARA: Turkey and Iran aim to more than double trade to $30 billion next year from $13.5 billion in 2013 despite strained relations, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday.

Erdogan arrived in Tehran Tuesday on a visit expected to be dominated by trade but also in what also looked like a bid to defuse tensions over Syria by capitalizing on Tehran’s diplomatic opening to regional rivals and the West.

Iran has been a strong strategic ally of Syrian President Bashar 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 ties with the West, and shared concern over the rise of Al-Qaeda in Syria, have spurred hopes of a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement.

Erdogan said “2012 was exceptional for trade, which reached $21.8 billion. Unfortunately, that declined to $13.5 billion in 2013, but the two countries want to bring that to $30 billion in 2015.”

He said Turkey, which has traditionally relied on neighboring Iran and Russia for its energy needs, could “increase its imports” from Iran.

Erdogan spoke during a ceremony to sign three cooperation agreements that include reductions in tariffs on 220 Turkish industrial products and on Iranian food products.

Oil and gas imports have declined in recent years due to sanctions imposed on Iran by the European Union and the United States over its controversial nuclear program.

But that could change following a landmark November deal between Iran and the major powers that went into effect last week.

Western governments agreed to gradually ease some of their sanctions and release billions of dollars in frozen assets in return for Iran rolling back parts of its nuclear program and halting further advances.

Before leaving Ankara, Erdogan said he welcomed the agreement and hoped it would lead to a definitive deal on removing sanctions.

“We wish the process will be finalized with an agreement that will ensure the removal of all sanctions on Iran. Turkey has so far done its best in that regard and will continue to do so,” he said.

In Tehran, Erdogan said: “Today we had a good chance to review bilateral ties,” 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.

During his visit, Erdogan met supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Rouhani, but there were no details on the substance of their talks.

“The friendship and brotherhood between the two countries has been unprecedented for centuries,” IRNA quoted Khamenei was saying, while calling for ties to be strengthened further.

“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] serves regional interests as well,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in Tehran.“As two neighbors and Muslim countries, Iran and Turkey enjoy many commonalities and many cooperation opportunities.”

Erdogan had said in Ankara that he would raise the Syrian crisis during his visit to Tehran, but there was no public comment from either side on the two countries’ differences.

The Turkish premier is under the shadow of a massive graft scandal at home that includes allegations of illegal gold sales to Iran.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 30, 2014, on page 1.




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