ISTANBUL | Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began a high-level visit to Iran on Monday with criticism of Western pressure on Iran over its nuclear program and promises to double trade with the Islamic republic by 2011.
The visit comes as the United States and its allies consider stronger sanctions if Iran does not accept a plan to send out much of its nuclear fuel and U.N. inspectors examine a uranium enrichment plant whose existence Iran hid until last month.
Besides potentially weakening Western leverage with Iran, the visit could further undermine Turkey’s relations with Israel. Turkey recently canceled a NATO training exercise because Israel was supposed to participate. Mr. Erdogan has harshly criticized Israel’s offensive last year in Gaza, and Turkish television has broadcast programs accusing Israel of committing atrocities against the Palestinians.
Mr. Erdogan’s 200-strong delegation includes 18 members of parliament and Turkeys ministers of foreign affairs, foreign trade and energy and natural resources. It was a rare high-level visit by a NATO member to Iran, particularly in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed presidential elections.
In an interview with the British newspaper, the Guardian, Mr. Erdogan described Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was re-elected in the fraud-tainted vote, as “our friend.”
The Turkish leader dismissed Western accusations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons as “gossip,” adding that “Iran does not accept it is building a weapon. They are working on nuclear power for the purposes of energy only.”
A U.S. State Department official had no immediate comment on the Erdogan trip.
Mr. Erdogan has increasingly championed the interests of Turkey’s Muslim neighbors while underscoring Turkey’s diplomatic importance to the West. Specialists on Turkey said Mr. Erdogan wants to present Turkey as a Muslim mediator between Europe and the Middle East.
“Erdogan sees a huge opportunity,” said Elaine Papoulias, director of the Kennedy Schools Kokkalis Program on Southeastern Europe at Harvard University.
She noted that there is a greater possibility of Iranian reconciliation with the West and that Mr. Erdogan is “not afraid of doing bold things such as receiving Hamas leaders or going to Syria when people didnt think it was a great idea. A year later, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi was in Syria.”
Few high-ranking European officials have visited Iran recently with the exception of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In May, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini canceled a visit at the last minute because he said his Iranian hosts asked him to meet Mr. Ahmadinejad at the site of a missile launch.
Mr. Erdogan — like Mr. Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of his country’s largest city — told reporters that he hopes to double annual bilateral trade from about $10 billion to “up to $20 billion by 2011.”
While Italy and other European nations have cut back business to pressure Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, Turkish construction, telecommunication and processed foods companies have major business in Iran, and Iran is Turkeys largest supplier of natural gas after Russia. Turkey signed a preliminary $3.5 billion deal last year that calls for Iranian gas to be exported to Europe through Turkey. Turkish firms are producing gas in Iran’s South Pars field.
Turkey hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in August despite Iran’s violent crackdown of postelection protests. Scores of protestors have fled to Turkey, but Mr. Erdogan told the Guardian that he would not raise the issue of the protests because that would be “interference” in Iranian domestic affairs.