Iran could try to exploit growing trade ties with Turkey, a neighbor with a booming economy, in order to circumvent international sanctions aimed at forcing it to stop its suspected efforts to make nuclear weapons, a U.S. Treasury Department official said Wednesday.
The warning reflected U.S. concerns that Turkey might become a vulnerable link in the effort to isolate Iran, which is under four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions, primarily for defying council demands to stop uranium enrichment. Turkey has pledged to abide by U.N. resolutions, though it has differed with the U.S. stance on Iran and is eager to develop energy and other business ties with its neighbor.
"As trade relationships expand, the risk of abuse by Iran expands at the same time," David S. Cohen, acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at a news conference at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul.
"Iran has a track record of using deceptive practices to facilitate its proliferation activity, and it tries to hide within a broad stream of commerce those transactions that they need in order to continue their nuclear program and their ballistic missile program," Cohen said.
Cohen delivered his message to senior government officials and banking sector leaders on a two-day visit. He did not offer a direct assessment of Turkey's implementation of sanctions, but he noted that its financial sector was "working to protect itself" from allegedly illicit activities by Iran, and that authorities last month seized an Iranian plane bound for Syria that he said was carrying weapons.
In that incident, Turkey said it seized the cargo of an Iranian plane because the shipment violated U.N. sanctions. Turkish media said the aircraft was carrying light weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket launchers and mortars.
Turkey, the biggest Muslim ally in NATO, has worked closely with Washington in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has also sought closer ties with Iran, which says U.N. sanctions are "illegal" and that it has the right to develop peaceful nuclear power. Last year, Turkey and Brazil became the only two U.N. Security Council members to vote against a U.S.-backed measure to impose new sanctions on Iran because of its disputed nuclear program.
The two countries had brokered a fuel-swap agreement with Iran that was cast as an alternative solution to Western concerns about Tehran's uranium enrichment. Low-enriched uranium can be used to fuel a reactor to generate electricity, which Iran says is the intention of its program. But if uranium is further enriched to around 90 percent purity, it can be used to develop a nuclear warhead.
The council vote hurt relations between the United States and Turkey, which hosted an unsuccessful round of talks between Iran and world powers in Istanbul in January.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said in February that annual trade with Iran had reached $10 billion and the aim was to reach $30 billion in the next few years. However, a Turkish business group said the sanctions were taking their toll on cross-border trade.
"Companies hesitate to work between Turkey and Iran, even for goods outside embargo categories," said Ozcan Alas, chairman of the Iran and Middle Eastern Trade Development Association, based in Istanbul. "Turkey interferes so much that trade has shifted to the illegal mountain zones. Turkey keeps saying, 'You cannot sell this, and buy that,' while Iran applies a horrid customs tariff for protection."
Cohen said it was vital that Turkish banks refrain from doing business with any Iranian banks or institutions suspected of proliferation activities. He said Iran's Bank Mellat had been judged to be involved in illicit activity by the United States, the European, Japan, South Korea and other nations, and that the bank and its branches in Turkey should be isolated "entirely."
Bank Mellat's website says it has 1,815 branches inside Iran, and four foreign branches _ in South Korea, Istanbul, the Turkish capital, Ankara, and the western coastal city of Izmir. It has subsidiaries in Armenia and London.
Total gross profit of the foreign branches and subsidiaries was $77 million in the 2009-2010 financial year, the bank says.
Associated Press writer Ceren Kumova contributed from Ankara, Turkey.