Turkey pushes for nuclear arms-free Middle East

MANAMA Wed Apr 15, 2009 9:28am EDT

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul attends the European Business Summit in Brussels March 26, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul attends the European Business Summit in Brussels March 26, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Vidal

MANAMA (Reuters) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul called on Wednesday for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, hoping that a U.S.-Russian pledge to join forces to eradicate nuclear weapons will encourage the region.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have pledged to seek a deal by July on cutting their nuclear arsenals, work for a nuclear-free world and coordinate policy on Iran and North Korea.

Gul, in a speech to Bahrain's parliament, said: "The Middle East should be a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

"We are going through times where hopes for multilateral diplomacy to weigh in once again are on the rise. That is why I take the new U.S. administration's statements on disarmament and the joint statement by presidents Obama and Medvedev early this month very seriously."

Obama visited Turkey in early April and held talks with Gul.

Gul called on all countries in the Middle East to sign up to international arrangements for the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea also have declared nuclear weapons. Israel is widely understood to have a nuclear arsenal but maintains a policy of ambiguity.

Iran is suspected by Western powers of wanting to join the club. Tehran says its nuclear program is only to generate electricity. There is concern that Iran's nuclear power program will spur a proliferation drive in the Middle East.

Gul and the Turkish government under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan have relaunched a push to help solve regional conflicts ranging from Iran to Israel-Syria peace talks.

Turkey has also offered to help end the standoff between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.

"Turkey has always pointed out that any solution to the issue of the Iranian nuclear program should be found through diplomacy and peaceful means," Gul said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday Iran had prepared a package to resolve its nuclear dispute.

He was speaking after the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain said they would ask European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana to invite Iran to a meeting to find "a diplomatic solution to this critical issue."

It marked a shift in U.S. policy under Obama, whose predecessor George W. Bush shunned direct talks with Tehran as long as it pressed ahead with its nuclear activity.

Ahmadinejad did not give details about the package, which he said would be presented to the West soon.

(Writing by Paul de Bendern in Istanbul; Editing by Janet Lawrence)