ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Friday he hoped his country and Turkey would soon sign energy deals opposed by Washington, which is exerting pressure on Tehran to give up its nuclear program.
The two Muslim neighbors failed to conclude expected energy accords during Ahmadinejad’s two-day trip to Turkey, which ended on Friday. Turkey, a NATO member with strong ties to the United States and Israel, has come under fire for inviting him.
Ahmadinejad has lobbied hard to visit Turkey since coming to power in 2005 as Iran seeks support amid international demands for a suspension of his country’s nuclear enrichment program — the subject of ongoing talks between Iran and Western powers.
“We have reached important agreements on natural gas and electricity issues. God willing we will complete them as soon as possible,” Ahmadinejad said.
“As you know, issues like natural gas and petroleum need investment and talks on these issues may take a long time.”
The failure to strike a deal to boost Iranian gas supplies to Turkey was an apparent blow to Tehran’s diplomatic initiative to avoid international isolation over its nuclear program.
But Ahmadinejad attracted vocal support from hundreds of Turks as he later visited the city’s Blue Mosque to pray.
“Warrior Ahmadinejad”, “Down with America”, “Down with Israel”, chanted a crowd of several hundred people as the Iranian leader greeted them outside the mosque.
The United States has voiced its opposition to the energy deal amid a standoff between Iran and Western countries.
Turkish sources have attributed the failure to sign the accords to new demands from Iran on pricing and investment conditions. Neither side gave an official reason for the delay.
After talks between Ahmadinejad and Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Thursday the two countries said in a statement they would continue discussing further energy cooperation.
After Russia, Iran is the biggest provider of gas to Turkey.
Rivalry in the energy sector between Turkey and Iran could undermine prospects of a major energy deal coming to fruition, according to Arif Keskin, Iran expert at the Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara.
“Iran just wants to use Turkey as a transit country but Turkey wants to be a partner. Iran is concerned about Turkey becoming an energy hub,” he said, adding there were doubts about Iran’s gas production ability.
“Most importantly Ahmadinejad has come to buy some time for Iran internationally (in the nuclear talks),” Keskin said.
There are also doubts about Ankara’s determination to push through the $3.5 billion energy project as it may result in U.S. sanctions against Turkish companies, according to analysts.
Last year the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to export Iranian gas to Europe through Turkey, including a provision for Turkey to produce 20.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas in Iran’s huge South Pars gas field.
Ankara has said Ahmadinejad’s visit was necessary given the failure to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, and offered to help resolve the row.
But analysts say Turkey may have played up the nuclear issue to deflect criticism over inviting Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel and who is shunned by Europe.
Western countries say they fear the Islamic Republic is pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. Tehran denies this.
Ankara’s powerful secularist establishment has long opposed his visit on fears he would seek to export the Islamic revolution to predominantly Muslim but secular Turkey.
President Gul said on Thursday he had asked Iran to take into consideration the international community’s concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program.
Ankara fears a possible U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran will plunge the region into turmoil and hurt Turkey.
Iran is becoming an increasingly important trade partner for Turkey. Ahmadinejad said bilateral trade was targeted to reach $20 billion within four years, from some $10 billion this year.
Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Samia Nakhoul