ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday his country and neighboring Iran must work together to narrow their differences in order to tackle terrorism and sectarianism in the region.
Ankara and Tehran are on different sides of Syria’s civil war, but they are looking to boost bilateral trade and improve banking relations following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in January.
Shi‘ite Iran has stood by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising against him, while mainly Sunni Turkey has been one of his fiercest critics, supporting his opponents and giving refuge to rebel fighters.
“It is above all in our own countries’ interest to strengthen our political dialogue and reduce our differences of opinion to a minimum,” Erdogan told a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in Ankara.
“We have to work together to overcome the problems of terrorism and sectarianism and the related humanitarian crises that are shaking our region,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s comments came a day after the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), meeting in Istanbul, accused Iran of supporting terrorism and interfering in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries including Syria and Yemen.
Sectarian divisions have flared up in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies rallying behind it as it cut diplomatic ties with Iran, the region’s main Shi‘ite power. Turkey has close ties with Riyadh.
Besides their rivalry in Syria, Iran is allied with the Houthi movement in Yemen, which has been battling forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed president.
Meanwhile, Turkey is seeking international backing for its view that Kurdish YPG forces in Syria are a terrorist group closely linked to PKK militants fighting in southeast Turkey.
Despite the political divisions, Turkey could be one of the major beneficiaries as Rouhani, bolstered by reformist gains in February elections, pursues plans to strengthen the private sector and welcome foreign investors.
Turkey imports large amounts of natural gas from Iran and the two countries are looking to boost banking and trade ties, with the goal of tripling bilateral trade to $30 billion annually in the coming years.
“The situation is ripe for cooperation between Turkey and Iran in the post-sanctions era,” Rouhani said.
“The most important part is closer ties between banks and credit lines. We decided to improve banking relations. Turkish banks can now establish branches in Iran to help facilitate economic relations between the two countries,” he added.
Iran’s central bank governor called on Friday on the United States and the European Union to help it access the global financial system, including assets that Tehran says were supposed to be unfrozen following the nuclear deal.
Iran is increasingly exacerbated that few trade deals are going through as foreign banks shy away from processing transactions with the country even after the nuclear-related sanctions were lifted.
Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Helen Popper