* Strained relations over violent unrest in Syria
* Turkey offers to host nuclear discussions
* Neighbours talk of deepening economic ties (Adds Salehi comments on Syria and nuclear talks, analysis)
By Marcus George
DUBAI, March 28 (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met Iran’s leaders on Wednesday amid signs Tehran might soften its stance on Syria after steadfastly supporting its closest Arab ally over more than a year of violent unrest.
Erdogan arrived in Tehran before dawn, accompanied by a large delegation of ministers and officials, for discussions on Syria, Iran’s nuclear programme and closer economic ties.
While Turkey has repeatedly voiced its support for Iran’s right to establish a peaceful nuclear programme, it is at odds with Tehran over Syria where the government’s bloody crackdown against opposition rebels and protesters has killed thousands.
Erdogan has urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and has allowed opposition groups to meet in Istanbul.
Speaking to Reuters, a Turkish official played down divisions over Syria: “They (Iran) respect our leadership and our opinions. We have good cooperation with Iran and they know we are trying to bring stability to the region.”
On the sidelines of the discussions, Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran would back any agreement between the Syrian leadership and U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, who is set to visit Tehran early next week.
China and Russia have backed a U.N.-sponsored peace plan calling for national dialogue but not the removal of Assad.
A diplomat in Tehran said events in Syria had damaged relations between Iran and Turkey a great deal and that many believed this issue was the most important of this week’s talks.
“There is a sense that Syria has become more important than the nuclear issue,” the diplomat said. “Iran doesn’t accept Turkey’s standpoint so it really depends on China and Russia. That might help Erdogan but he needs to do a lot of work.”
Erdogan held talks about Iran with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday in South Korea, raising speculation Turkey was taking a message from Washington to Tehran - although a Turkish official dismissed that.
Obama said in Seoul there was time to resolve the dispute through diplomacy but the window was closing. Iran says it has the right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme but the U.S. and its allies suspect it is trying to develop atomic weapons.
“There is no new message on the nuclear issue,” the Turkish official said. “Turkey is not the messenger. That is just speculation. Our message is what we have said many times before.”
Turkey has offered to host the next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries which Salehi and Western diplomats say are expected to take place on April 13. No location has yet been confirmed.
“We have offered to host the meeting but it’s not important where it takes place, only whether it is successful,” the official said.
Despite the Syria issue, analysts say Turkey might flex its muscles and become a key influence over Iran.
“Iran is actually in quite a weak position regionally and will need Turkey more than the Turks need Iran at the present moment,” said Dr Ali Ansari of the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Wednesday’s talks also concern economic cooperation. Trade between the two states has rocketed to $16 billion dollars over the last ten years. Iran is keen to build trade relations to minimise tough new sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union against its financial and energy sectors.
In a joint news conference with Iranian vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Erdogan said the trade goal was $35 billion dollars by 2015, the Iranian state news agency reported.
Iran and Turkey have agreed to appoint mutual special envoys to further cooperation between the two neighbours.
Such a policy risks relations with the West. Last week Ankara failed to secure an exemption from Washington on its purchase of Iranian crude oil. (Editing by Louise Ireland)