Erdogan Hits West over Iran Nuke Pressure

Article excerpt

Byline: Iason Athanasiadis, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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 Turkey's 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 a 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 School's Kokkalis Program on Southeastern Europe at Harvard University. …