The United States is intensifying its pressure on Turkey to lessen its trade and financial ties with Iran and comply with recently imposed sanctions against the country amid escalating tension in the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil transport route.

Ankara, which will host William Burns, the No. 2 of the U.S. State Department, on Monday said, "unilateral sanctions were not binding Turkey and it should be exempted from these measures."

"Sanctions implemented by the U.S. and Europe [against Iran] are not binding for Turkey. Turkey has to be exempted from these sanctions," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was quoted as saying by the Japanese daily Nikkei over the weekend.

Deputy Secretary of State Burns will meet with Davutoğlu and Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Burns' visit to Turkey coincides with growing concerns about an armed conflict between Iran and the U.S. in the Strait of Hormuz after Washington issued a series of sanctions on Iran that would penalize foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran's Central Bank, the main conduit for its oil revenues. The fact that Davutoğlu was the last leader meeting with Iranian officials last week makes Burns' visit more significant.

"It will be an overall assessment on foreign policy issues," a diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News, underlining that the timing of the meeting was decided long ago. "The talks will likely focus on Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as counter-terrorism and energy security."

The growing tension between Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal will also be underlined. The two countries' diplomats will also talk about the functions of the early warning radar system that has been deployed in Turkey's territories.

Burns is expected to brief Ankara on the content of the sanctions and to demand more support from Turkey in the international community's diplomatic fight against Iran to stop its nuclear program. Washington is concerned about the nearly $15 billion trade volume and the still-growing trade ties between Turkey and Iran, arguing this relationship encourages Tehran to not heed demands of the international community on its nuclear program.

"We have made it clear that Turkey would only comply with sanctions decided by the UN Security Council under chapter seven of the UN Treaty," the diplomat said.

The sanctions could hurt Tüpraş, Turkey's sole refinery, which purchased nine million tons of crude oil from Iran in 2011 and recently made a deal to purchase the same amount of oil in 2012. Turkey, which supplies one third of its oil from Iran, is one of the most reliant countries on Iranian crude oil.

Considering the safety of the global energy market and national interests, the sanctions do also envisage exemptions.

"Of course, we will eye for own national interests. We will do it without challenging our relationship with our key ally," the diplomat said, hinting exemptions could be sought.

U.S. sanctions are causing concerns that they could hurt the global energy market and skyrocket oil prices in the world. Japan, one of the world's largest energy consumers, demanded to be exempted from sanctions as well.

One of the immediate consequences of Davutoğlu's meetings last week with Iranian officials was a verbal agreement between Tehran and the European Union on resuming suspended nuclear talks. Though Iran and P5+1 (five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany) have announced their intention to hold talks in Turkey, Ankara is seemingly cautious.

"What we underline is the need to reduce the tension in the region. If both parties have the will to talk, they will talk," the diplomat said. Davutoğlu said he hoped talks would resume soon.

Turkey's Shiites Complain about Prejudice, Injustice

As Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned of an emergence of fresh sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, the leader of the nearly three million Shiite Muslims in Sunni-dominated Turkey, Selahattin Özgündüz, claimed Caferis (a sect of Shiites) in Turkey were being subjected to assimilation and stigmatization by government policies.

"The state's Directorate of Religious Affairs shows the Shiites as the inner enemy of Islam and instigator within the Islamic religion in the books they publish. We are subjected to insults, and our children are being raised according to Sunni-Islam's teachings in the schools. This is directly assimilation and stigmatization," Turkish Caferi leader Özgündüz told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.

Özgündüz claimed the state's Directorate of Religious Affairs was acting like an official organization of once sect, Sunni Islam, and stigmatizing the other sects in Turkey.

"The taxes we pay are returning to us as 'denial, assimilation and insults.' If our taxes are transferring to an organization that serves only one sect and ignores the others, then we have a legal problem here," Özgündüz said. "Including the Alevis, we are more than 20 million."

On Dec. 27, Özgündüz claimed in a TV program called "Angle" (Açı), which was broadcasted on the state's Turkish Radio Television Channel, or TRT, insulting words were used against the Shiites.

"Our sect is stigmatized and insulted, and a smear campaign is run against us by also using the names of the Shiite countries in the region. We are fed up with the rhetoric such as 'Shiite Maliki [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] is racking the Sunnis in Iraq' or 'Shiite Iran is trying to spread Shiism in the region,'" he said. "People are targeted due to their sects; however, I belong to the same sect as al-Maliki, with the Shiites in Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran. You can have problems with certain people or states, but you should not recall these problems by referring to their sects."

Hiccups between Turkey, Syria Temporary, Syrian President Says

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Saturday that he believes the recent hiccups between Turkey and Syria are temporary, adding that the two countries need to salvage what he called "brotherly relations between the two nations."

During a meeting with Turkey's Islamist-based Felicity Party, or SP, leader Mustafa Kamalak, said al-Assad underlined that there might be some wrongs committed between the two countries from time to time as his country is going under the reform process.

"The important thing is to overcome this process with minimal damage to the bilateral ties" he noted.

Recalling that both countries have started to build new relations since 2000, al-Assad said the two nations have no problem with each other.
"We are brothers," he remarked during a 40-minute meeting with Kamalak. "We have changed the history in a decade."

Al-Assad assured the Turkish politician that the reform process is going on, even though it proved to be difficult at times.

"Even moving from one house to another is not easy" he said, stressing that Syria would have a new constitution in February. He claimed that the opposition and its supporters have no real intention of reforms. "They have different agendas" he remarked.

Praising the Turkish nation as "benevolent", he said he had difficulty in understanding the position of the Turkish government. Nevertheless, he said he is hopeful that both countries would come out of this crisis.

"We are living in the same house. If there is a fire in one room, it would spread to other rooms. That is why we have to extinguish this fire together" he stated.

Basbug Seeks Trial in Supreme Council

Following last week's arrest chief of Turkey's former General Staff İlker Başbuğ, discussions on whether Başbuğ will be tried in the Supreme Council or in civilian court continue.

Başbuğ, the former head of Turkey's armed forces, should be tried in the Supreme Council if he is charged with plotting to overthrow the government, his lawyer, Ilkay Sezer, said.

According to Sezer, his client had worked in tandem with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government for seven years and was stunned by the belated accusations against him.

"There has been no allegation of a crime until now, that is one and a half years following his retirement," Sezer told reporters. "He says it is beyond his comprehension."

He added that any indictment should be framed by the Supreme Court of Appeals and the case heard by Turkey's top court. Başbuğ, chief of General Staff from 2008 to 2010, was sent to Silivri prison outside Istanbul on Friday after an Istanbul court ordered he remain in custody while the prosecution completed its investigation and prepared formal charges.

Sezer said he was appealing against the custody order.

Meanwhile, Vedat Ahsen Coşar, the head of the Turkish Bar Association, or TBB, in a written statement on Sunday, said Başbuğ's charges were related to his duty and, therefore, he should be judged in the Supreme Council.

Still some lawyers said he may be tried in civilian court since his charges were not related to his post.

"He would be tried in the Supreme Council if the charges were related to his position. However, he is charged with 'leading an outlawed organization' and 'attempting to overthrow the government by force' and they are not directly related to that," Mete Göksel, former public prosecutor, said, adding that other Armed Forces members, who were also being tried in the same case, were tried in civilian court.

Başbuğ was placed in a one-person cell in Silivri Prison on following his arrest on charges of "leading an outlawed organization" and "attempting to overthrow the government by force" in the early hours of the day.

It was the first time a former top general had been arrested by a civilian court in Turkey.
Başbuğ was arrested for having alleged associations with the ongoing Internet Memorandum case and other allegations pertaining to the "Action Plan to Combat Reactionism" trial.

U.S. Lawmakers to Visit France, Turkey, Middle East

Senior United States lawmakers said Thursday they would travel next week to France, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss ways to apply pressure on Iran.

"I look forward to discussing a wide range of issues, including the very concerning threat posed to the entire world by Iran's continuing support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear capability," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who will lead the delegation, said in a statement in Washington.

"One goal that all responsible nations must be committed to is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another senior member of the group.

Ros-Lehtinen, an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said she would also "press" the countries involved "on policies which undermine U.S. interests and run contrary to democratic values," but did not elaborate.

"I will also use this as an opportunity to press these governments to respect human rights, particularly with respect to women, and end religious intolerance" in the wake of the Arab Spring, she said.

The delegation will also include Republican Representative Kay Granger, who heads the House committee that allots foreign aid, and the group's sole Democrat will be Representative Peter Welch.

Turkey Still Expects Israeli Apology, Compensation

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed on Sunday that maintain its stance on the Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed nine Turks, demanding an apology, compensation and end Israel's blockade of Gaza.

"There is no change in our expectations, our principles and demands are obvious and we still expect apology, compensation and end of Gaza blockade," Davutoğlu said during a meeting on "Turkey in the light of international developments" in Istanbul.

Davutoğlu said Turkey backed a scenario in which Iraq and other regional countries united around bigger organizations instead of a scenario based on division of Iraq into smaller units.

The foreign minister said Iraq should be a country where all ethnic and sectarian groups lived in peace and Turkey focused its policy on unification, not division.

Davutoglu also said Europe needed Turkish injection, which would not only bring strategic but also economic dynamism and cultural majority.

Turkish Envoy Back in Paris amid Armenia Genocide Row

The Turkish ambassador to France, Tahsin Burcuoglu, has returned to Paris after consultations over French legislation that would outlaw denial of the Armenian genocide, an official said Sunday.

"The ambassador has finished the consultations for which he was recalled and returned to France on Saturday," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told the AFP.

Burcuoglu was recalled to Ankara after the French parliament's lower house approved a bill criminalizing denial of the genocide and will now focus on preventing the bill from being approved by the Senate, Unal said.

The bill was entered last week onto the agenda of the left-dominated Senate and is expected to win passage because it is backed by both sides of the aisle. Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy has championed the legislation, drawing allegations that he is seeking to woo the half a million French of Armenian descent ahead of April elections.

French lawmakers voted on December 22 to jail and fine anyone in France who denies that the 1915 killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire amounted to genocide, prompting Turkey to suspend political and military cooperation with Paris.

Europe Can Overcome Problems by Joining Hands with Turkey, FM Says

Europe is losing fast its geo-strategic significance and economic dynamism, but it can overcome its problems if it unites forces with Turkey despite obstacles in Ankara's bid to join the European Union, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Sunday.

"The picture of Europe in our mind is that of a Europe that has regained its geo-political standing. It can do that through us. We envision a Europe that has regained its economic dynamism, something which it can do through us," ," Davutoğlu said in a speech delivered during a meeting hosted by Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association, or MÜSİAD, in İstanbul. "This is the Europe we want. Today's Europe is the one that loses its geo-political significance, economic dynamism, which has been ageing fast and losing its political clout."

Davutoğlu said as Europe goes through a financial crisis, there is no way Turkey would not be affected by it.

"Just as we see ourselves as an inalienable element of the Europe's past, we also see ourselves as an inalienable element of Europe's future. We are looking at Europe from within, not from outside," he said. "We have a responsibility to come up with a 'Turkish' solution to the economic crisis in Europe. We don't say 'they said no to us, so let them pay the price," he said, apparently referring to objections within Europe to Turkey's EU membership.

Iranian Foreign Minister Says Iran, Turkey Can Restore Peace in Region

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Friday said Iran and Turkey could restore peace, security and stability in their region in cooperation and solidarity.

Salehi defined Turkey and Iran as two important and influential countries in the region.

"There is an Islamic awakening on the axis of people's demonstrations in the region, and these developments are important for both Iran and Turkey," Salehi told a joint press conference with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Tehran, adding that Turkey and Iran had a common perspective on regional developments.

Salehi defined Davutoglu's visit as fruitful, and said they were making progress in every meeting. He also said he would visit Turkey soon to boost relations and cooperation.

Ban Urges Cypriot Leaders to Make Effort for Jan. 22

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Saturday urged Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders to reach success in ongoing talks before the meeting in Greentree, New York between January 22 and 24.

"There is no deadline as such, but I have made it quite clear that we cannot go on this way, considering Cyprus is going to take the Presidency of the European Union from July 1st, then there is not much time left," Ban told reporters when asked the Greentree summit was the last chance to achieve peace.
Northern Cyprus President Derviş Eroğlu and Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias are expected to hold a trilateral meeting with Ban in Greentree at the end of this month.

"I urged them, the two leaders, to do as much as possible and agree as much as possible during negotiations in Greentree, and think about the possibility of moving towards the international conference announced by me at the conclusion of our meeting last year," Ban said. "I hope before they come to New York, they [will] engage continuously in that negotiation. I understand they are going to meet again Jan. 9th. I hope there will be a good result."

Ban has also sent a letter to both leaders calling on them to reach an agreement. In his letter, Ban said a map will also be negotiated, but after the Greentree meeting takes place, reiterating his invitation to spouses of Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders to come together with Eroğlu and Christofias.

According to diplomatic observers, the tendency of the Greek Cypriot administration to postpone or cancel the Greentree summit is no longer a possibility after Ban's clear and frank invitation. Meanwhile, Derviş Eroğlu said Saturday that Turkish Cypriot executives were working for an acceptable agreement, in a meeting with members of Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Eroğlu said he hoped to reach an agreement on the Cyprus issue that could be accepted by Turkish Cypriot people and Turkey.

"But, this is not something that can be achieved only by ourselves," Eroğlu said.

Meanwhile, Eroğlu was expected to attend a dinner with Greek Cypriot party Democratic Rally Party leader Nikos Anastasiadis in Limassol Monday.

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