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Turkey's president on its relations with Iran, Israel and the U.S.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010; A23

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who led his nation's delegation to the U.N. General Assembly this week, sat down with The Post's Lally Weymouth to discuss Turkey's relations with the United States, Israel and Iran. Excerpts:

Q. In June, Turkey voted against the U.S.-sponsored U.N. sanctions [against Iran]. . . . Wasn't this a break in relations between Turkey and the West?

A. We are a NATO member and we are against nuclear weapons in our region. We believe the solution must come through diplomatic channels and diplomatic means. If there is a war in the region, that will affect us as, for example, the war in Iraq has affected us.

I think the [permanent members of the Security Council] and President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton feel very strongly that the only way to get Iran to stop building a nuclear program is to put tighter sanctions on the Iranians.

This is not correct [that we have not cooperated]. When there are binding sanctions, we abide by those binding sanctions.

There was a Reuters story published [Monday] that Turkey is allowing an Iranian bank to operate [on its soil]. Reportedly, this bank is key to building Iran's nuclear program and it is only allowed to operate in Turkey because sanctions have been put on the bank elsewhere.

I did see that report. But if it falls within the sanctions not to permit it, it wouldn't have happened.

It does fall within the sanctions to not permit it.

That means it is not going to happen.

Don't you think that Iran is building nuclear weapons?

Iran is a member of the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and is also party to the [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. The issue here is for Iran to be more transparent. That is where there is a problem. . . . There shouldn't be any question mark in your mind that Turkey in any way would look favorably upon Iran having a nuclear weapon. . . . The issue here is to see whether or not nuclear weapons are being produced and that has to be understood through diplomatic means.

What is going on between Turkey and Israel?

Relations between Turkey and Israel in the region are important. We have done many things in common in the past. Where we are today is not our choice and it is not our doing, either. It is up to Israel.

Why would you back the flotilla going to Gaza when you know that Israel has an embargo?

This embargo is against human rights of the people.

Why is it against human rights?

Not only Turkey -- President Obama, Madame Clinton, all the European countries -- they called on Israel to lift this embargo.

You know very well that you have Hamas in Gaza, which is very hostile to Israel and has been sending rockets to Israel that have been killing Israelis for eight years.

The flotilla was organized by a non-government organization. . . . They were attacked in international waters. Nine people were killed, one being a Turkish-U.S. citizen. Not a single weapon was found on board the ships. All they found was food and clothing and other items of aid. This is not a crime -- to have organized that. But to attack ships in international waters, to kill people -- those are crimes. That is why I say that there are things that Israel needs to do to change the situation.

So what do they need to do?

That would involve apologizing and admitting that a mistake was made and it also involves compensating the families of the people who lost their lives.

I read that you are meeting with President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad of Iran.

I will have a meeting with the Iranian president. . . . No country other than Turkey can speak to them the way that we can . . . and I don't think that is very appreciated.

What will you tell them?

We tell them to be more conciliatory. We tell the Iranians that since there are certain question marks in people's minds, it is up to them to try to overcome these concerns, to act openly and transparently so that these concerns can go away.

You feel your relationship with the U.S. is good?

U.S.-Turkish relations are very important to us. We are allies and that fact in itself is very important. On the Iranian nuclear issue, we have the capacity to help and I believe the U.S. administration has understood that, and they want us to continue to go that route.

Do [Iranian leaders] listen to you and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

I would say that yes, there are times when they do listen to us.

How do you see the power structure in Iran?

There are different power bases in Iran. For example, I am a person who can speak to the president of Iran and to the supreme leader, very openly and honestly on the topics we talked about, and they listen to me.

So you have met the supreme leader? What is he like?

Yes, very extensively. I have spoken to them about all the things that I believe to be right and true and they have listened and they consider what I say.

Do you believe they are united or hold different views?

I would not want to speak to the domestic relations in Iran. We are neighbors after all.

Prime Minister Erdogan said that you want to triple your trade with Iran in the next five years.

Economic relations are important for every country.

Is there anything that you think the American readers should know?

They should know that we don't have any intention to undermine the American alliance. We are helping it; we are contributing to the progress. We need to trust each other.

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