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Minister Says Turkey Trying To Ease U.S.-Iran Tensions

Hillary Clinton and her Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan in Ankara
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has said -- after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and shortly before leaving for Tehran -- that Turkey was trying to bridge differences between the United States and Iran.

Turkey, the only predominantly Muslim member of NATO, has offered to help resolve the standoff between the United States, its traditional ally, and its neighbor Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.

Clinton said in an interview on Turkish television on March 7 that the United States would ask Turkey to help push forward U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to engage Iran.

Babacan, who held talks with Clinton in Ankara the same day, will visit Iran for an Economic Cooperation Organization meeting chaired by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Turkish officials are working to create "better understanding" between the United States and Iran and both sides are pleased with its efforts, Babacan said in an interview with the broadcaster NTV on March 8.

Babacan said he would not carry a message from the United States to Iranian officials and that Turkey was not acting as a facilitator or mediator between the two sides.

Turkey has advised both the United States and Iran that dialogue and diplomacy are key to lowering tension and that tough statements by both sides have yielded few results so far, Babacan said.

Clinton also met Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul in Ankara, the last stop in her week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe. She praised Turkey's role as a mediator between Syria and Israel.

The United States has accused Iran of trying to develop a nuclear bomb, while Tehran says its atomic program is aimed at producing nuclear power to meet its growing energy needs.

The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980, during the hostage crisis in which Iranian students held 52 Americans captive for 444 days following the Iranian revolution.