June 10, 2010 / 9:39 AM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 3-Turkey says Iran sanctions "mistake"; deepens Arab ties

* Turkey, with Brazil, to continue diplomacy with Iran

* Turkey to form free trade zone with Jordan, Lebanon, Syria

(Adds Syrian foreign minister quotes, paragraphs 18-19)

By Tulay Karadeniz and Jon Hemming

ISTANBUL, June 10 (Reuters) - Turkey called the imposition of U.N. sanctions on Iran a “mistake” on Thursday and said that it and Brazil would continue to seek a diplomatic solution to remove concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.

In a speech to an Arab and Turkish ministerial forum, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan also announced plans to form a regional free trade zone with three Arab states — Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The moves will add to concerns, voiced on Wednesday by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that the pivotal Western ally is in danger of swinging eastward because of resistance in Europe to its bid for membership of the European Union.

Turkey and Brazil, both non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, were the only members of the 15-strong council to vote on Wednesday against the imposition of new sanctions against Iran. Lebanon abstained.

“We would not want to participate in such a mistake because history will not forgive us,” Erdogan told a meeting attended by ministers from 22 members of the Arab League.

He said Turkey intended, with Brazil, to continue engaging Tehran, having secured a nuclear fuel swap deal last month that they had hoped would head off sanctions.

Western countries along with Russia and China viewed that deal as too little too late and pressed on with a fourth round of sanctions, as Iran continued uranium enrichment that world powers fear could be used for nuclear weapons.

Turkey believes that sanctions are ineffective and that there are dangers in pushing the Islamic republic into a corner.

“Isolation is not the solution to Iran’s problems,” Erdogan said.

EAST OR WEST

Though not an Arab, Erdogan has become a hero to many in the Arab world for championing the cause of Gaza’s Palestinians and putting their plight near the top of the world agenda after an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid ship.

A Cold War ally of the West and once a close ally of Israel, Turkey had been largely Western facing, but Erdogan has deepened ties with the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East.

Some commentators say Turkey is trying to revive historic ties with the dominions of the former Ottoman Empire, and Erdogan spoke warmly of Turkey’s bonds with the Arab world.

“A Turk cannot live without an Arab. An Arab is the Turk’s left eye, his right eye,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan spoke of “secret efforts” by some European countries to slow down Turkey’s bid for membership of the European Union. He said Turkey was continuing with reforms to meet EU requirements regardless of the hindrances.

He then said Turkey would form a free trade and visa-free travel zone with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Erdogan was fulsome regarding ties with neighbouring Syria, against which Turkey almost went to war 10 years ago.

“Now these two countries are like brothers of the same family, they come and go and visit each other, Erdogan said. “There is no difference between Turkey and Syria, Turkey is Syria and Syria is Turkey.

There has been media speculation in recent months that a conflict is brewing between Syria and Israel, and Damascus has been one of Turkey’s strongest supporters in the latest confrontation with the Jewish state.

“I hope it doesn’t lead to a war but if it is adventurous, Israel will receive the appropriate response,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told reporters at the Istanbul forum.

Some analysts see Erdogan’s AK party as a Muslim version of Europe’s Christian Democrat parties, while critics say it is Islamist leaning.

Speaking earlier, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey was determined to boost economic cooperation with the Arab world to the highest level possible.

“We want a vehicle to leave from Turkey and reach Morocco without stopping at any border gates,” he said.

The free trade zone “is not an alternative to the EU. Turkey is determined to achieve full membership of the EU, but this does not limit our relations with other regions. Above all when we achieve full membership of the EU, this will also benefit the EU,” Davutoglu added.

Since Erdogan’s AK Party came to power in 2002, Turkish exports to its Muslim neighbours have increased sharply, though non-fuel imports from them are small.

Turkey exported $1.4 billion worth of goods to Syria and $690 million to Lebanon in 2009. Exports to non-Arab Iran have grown 500 percent since 2002. (Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Yara Bayoumy; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by Tim Pearce)

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