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Turkey: President Ends Two-Day Visit To Iran

Prague, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer today wraps up a 24-hour visit to Iran aimed at improving complicated security ties and boosting economic relations.

The Turkish leader heads a 120-member trade delegation. He met twice with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Khatami at the Saad Abad Palace in northern Tehran. Yesterday, Sezer held separate talks with Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref.

Before leaving Ankara, Sezer told reporters he would use his first visit to Iran since he was elected president two years ago to improve trade and economic relations. He said he expected a Turkey-Iran Joint Business Council to start work immediately after his visit. Although the decision to set up the council was made last year, it has yet to begin work.

Sezer and Khatami signed two agreements covering cooperation in culture, education and economy. Both sides also signed a deal on mutual taxation aimed at stimulating Turkish exports to Iran.

Bilateral trade last year stood at between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion, with Iran having a large surplus. This imbalance is expected to increase this year as Iran has begun exporting natural gas to Turkey through a pipeline from Tabriz, in Iran's northwest, to the Turkish capital Ankara.

Iran's official news agency IRNA reports that Sezer and Aref yesterday discussed Turkish-Iranian cooperation within the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), a forum that also includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Sezer today inaugurated a chair of Turkish language and literature at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabaie University before departing on a highly symbolic tour of Tabriz, the final leg of his visit.

It was the first time a Turkish president visited the capital of Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan Province, which has an overwhelmingly Turkic-speaking population.

Over a third of Iran's 62 million people are of Turkic origin and Tehran has long suspected Azerbaijan, Turkey's closest ally in the region, of plotting to stir unrest in Iran's northwestern provinces.

Iranian media yesterday noted that Sezer's visit to Tabriz was a gesture of goodwill on the part of Tehran and a sign of its "sincerity" in seeking to improve ties with Turkey.

Although economic relations between Tehran and Ankara have improved, bilateral ties remain strained over security concerns.

Turkey's Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu told a seminar in Ankara last week that Turkey is still "careful" in its relations with Iran, which it suspects of working to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Earlier this month (5 June), Ankara voiced alarm at reports that Iran had, a few days ago, tested a long-range missile, saying Tehran's stated efforts to increase the capacity of its arsenal were threatening regional stability. Iran in turn is concerned by Ankara's defense ties with Israel.

Security issues were reportedly on top of Sezer's agenda when he met behind closed doors yesterday with Khatami for approximately two hours.

Both presidents afterwards told reporters they had agreed on the need jointly to fight terrorism and cooperate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, where Turkey this week (20 June) takes over from Britain the command of the International Assistance Security Force. Sezer and Khatami also stressed the need to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity.

Neither president got into the thornier issues that have complicated bilateral relations for most of the past two decades, such as alleged Iranian support for Kurdish militants.

Turkey claims that Iran is sheltering armed militants of the illegal Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which recently changed its name to Congress of Freedom and Democracy in Kurdistan (KADEK). Ankara also accuses Iran of funding the radical Islamic Hizbollah group, which operates mainly in Turkey's eastern provinces.

Tehran, which denies Turkey's charges, in turn accuses Ankara of harboring militants of the People's Mujahedin, an opposition group that seeks to overthrow Iran's Islamic leadership.

The English-language "Iran Daily" newspaper today writes that, although neither Ankara nor Teheran expect any miracle to emerge from Sezer's visit, the visit is nonetheless a clear sign that both capitals have decided to turn a new page in the history of bilateral relations. The paper says, "It is obvious that, irrespective of other considerations, Iran and Turkey are after all neighbors and must be able to co-exist peacefully in today's volatile world."