Turkey's prime minister on Thursday called for a major expansion in trade with Turkey's neighbor, Iran.  The call comes as many of Turkey's Western allies are supporting tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.  

Addressing a meeting of Iranian and Turkish businessmen in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of his hope of signing a free-trade agreement with Iran.

He asked, "Why can't we establish an unobstructed trade mechanism with Iran as we did before with European Union?"  Prime Minister Erdogan went on to praise the rapid growth Turkish-Iranian bilateral trade, which, he said, has grown from $1.2 billion in 2002 to $10 billion today.

Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party came to power eight years ago.  And the Turkish prime minister reiterated his government's goal to triple trade with Iran during next five years.

But such commitments come as Turkey's European allies and the United States impose tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, which they say is being used to develop atomic weapons - a charge Tehran denies.

Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selim Yenel says that even though Turkey is an EU candidate and a close U.S. ally, Ankara feels no obligation to impose such sanctions.

"The U.S. sanctions and EU sanctions are unilateral, so we do not feel obliged by then, and, of course, we were never even consulted about them.  So we do not feel obliged to abide by those decisions," he said.

Analysts say this attitude has become a concern in Washington and among some EU members.

The Turkish government has markedly improved relations with Iran, with Mr. Erdogan describing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a friend.

Turkey says that although it too opposes Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, sanctions are ineffective and diplomacy should be emphasized.

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