(Adds meetings with Khamenei, Rouhani, gas price issue)
* Turk PM signs three trade pacts, meets Khamenei, Rouhani
* Turkey seeks lower price for imported Iran natural gas
* Focus on energy deals but political rapprochement in air
* Turkey capitalises on opening from moderate Iran president
* Tensions over support for opposing sides in Syrian war
By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA, Jan 29 Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan visited Iran on Wednesday to bolster trade and energy
ties, state TV said, in what also looked like a bid to defuse
tensions over Syria by capitalising on Tehran's diplomatic
opening to regional rivals and the West.
Iran has been a strong strategic ally of Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising against him,
while Turkey has been one of his fiercest critics, supporting
his opponents and giving refuge to rebel fighters.
But Iran's election last June of President Hassan Rouhani, a
relative moderate who says he wants to thaw its ties with the
West, and shared concern over the rise of al Qaeda in Syria,
have spurred hopes of a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement.
While deep divisions remain between Ankara and Tehran over
the conflict in Syria, diplomats and government officials say
both sides want to mend a relationship that could be pivotal to
the fast-changing political map of the Middle East.
The United States believes detente between Turkey and Iran
is important to wider stability in the Middle East, a strategic
breakthrough Washington hopes to achieve from talks that world
powers are pursuing with Tehran to curb its nuclear programme.
Erdogan met Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as
well as Rouhani, whose foreign policy of "prudence and
moderation" has eased Tehran's international isolation and
revived contact with longtime arch-enemy Washington.
"Our relations with Turkey have entered a new phase and we
hope this trend continues. Besides serving the interests of the
two countries, we hope our dialogue (with Turkey) serve regional
interests as well," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh
Afkham told reporters in Tehran.
"As two neighbours and Muslim countries, Iran and Turkey
enjoy many commonalities and many cooperation opportunities."
Analysts said the main focus of Erdogan's visit was
expanding economic cooperation, finessing any political disputes
for now. "Considering that the economy and energy ministers are
accompanying Erdogan, we can say this trip is
business-targeted," said Tehran-based analyst Hossein Foroughi.
Erdogan signed three trade deals on Wednesday before leaving
Tehran to fly home, Iranian state television said.
"Today we had a good chance to review bilateral ties,"
Erdogan said in remarks translated into Farsi by Iranian
television as it showed him meeting Vice President Eshaq
"I would like to mention specifically, and to express my
satisfaction with, the agreement we signed in the preferential
trade field," he said. "It is obvious that we import from Iran
crude oil and gas, which are strategic energy sources, and we
(will be) able to increase the volume of these imports."
No details were immediately released about the three trade
pacts or Erdogan's meetings with Khamenei and Rouhani, who plans
to visit Turkey within the next few months, according to Iranian
and Turkish media.
SEEKING NATURAL GAS DISCOUNT
Erdogan's delegation repeated Turkey's demand for a discount
on the price of natural gas from Iran, a senior Turkish official
said. A senior Iranian official then told Reuters: "This issue
was discussed but further talks will take place on the issue of
discount. No decision has been made yet."
Turkey depends on imports for almost all of its natural gas
needs and the $60 billion energy bill Ankara must foot annually
has been the biggest driver of its ballooning current account
deficit, regarded as the main weakness of its economy.
Ankara deems Iranian gas too expensive compared with other
suppliers like Russia and Azerbaijan, an assertion rejected by
Tehran. Turkey's Petroleum Pipeline Corporation applied to an
international court of arbitration in 2012 for a ruling on
Iran's gas pricing. The case is still pending.
Turkey is keen to increase oil and gas imports from Tehran
in anticipation of sanctions against Iran's huge energy sector
being dismantled in the wake of the Nov. 24 deal between Tehran
and six big powers under which the Islamic Republic committed to
scaling back some of its controversial nuclear activities.
Some sanctions that were imposed over suspicions that Iran
is covertly trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability,
something it denies, were relaxed starting on Jan. 20.
But most sanctions, including a severe squeeze on Iran's
access to the international financial system, remain in force
pending a long-term agreement on the scope of Iran's nuclear
programme, which is to be negotiated over the next six months.
POTENTIAL MARKET BONANZA IN IRAN
But the potential of a market of 76 million people in Iran
with some of the world's biggest oil and gas reserves is a
magnet for foreign investors, including Turkish companies.
"We hope the process will be finalised with an agreement
that will ensure the removal of all sanctions on Iran. Turkey
has so far done its best in that regard and will continue to do
so," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara before he flew to Tehran.
Iranian officials say trade between the countries stood at
$22 billion (16.2 billion euros) in 2012, before dipping to $20
billion in 2013, and that it should reach $30 billion in 2015.
Iran was Turkey's third largest export market in 2012. In
fact, Iranian media said, Turkey exports more than 20,000
products to Iran, among them gold and silver.
The United States has been unhappy over continued trade with
Iran by its Turkish ally sidestepping the sanctions regime, and
has blacklisted some Turkish firms involved.
U.S. Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen, who visited
Turkey just before Erdogan's Iran trip, warned the Turkish
government against any rapid improvement of trade and economic
links with the Islamic Republic before a final nuclear agreement
is struck, according to Turkish media.
"Businesses interested in engaging in Iran really should
hold off. The day may come when Iran is open for business, but
the day is not today," Zaman newspaper quoted Cohen as saying.
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk,
Editing by Mark Heinrich)