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By Reza Derakhshi
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised visiting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday for his "clear stance against" Israel, Iran's state media reported.
Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly predicted Israel's imminent demise, blamed foreign states for regional problems and called for an expansion of Tehran-Ankara ties. His comments appeared aimed at the West, including Turkey's ally the United States.
"The more regional countries expand their ties and get closer to each other, the more they can remove their problems and limit the ill-wishers which have plots against them," state broadcaster IRIB quoted Ahmadinejad as telling Erdogan.
"Iran-Turkey cooperation would benefit both countries, the region and the whole Islamic world," he said.
Erdogan has steadily expanded NATO member Turkey's influence in the Middle East since his Islamist-rooted AK Party took power in 2002. He arrived in Iran, a major oil producer, on Monday as part of a two-day visit that coincides with worsening ties between Turkey and its regional ally Israel.
"Your clear stance against the Zionist regime had a positive impact in the world which undoubtedly made all nations happy," Ahmadinejad said in the meeting, IRIB reported. Iran does not recognise Israel, which it refers to as the Zionist state.
Erdogan's visit to Iran comes two weeks after Turkey barred Israel from a NATO exercise, a decision that angered Israel and prompted rare criticism from the United States.
Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel have suffered since Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter, in which Erdogan accused Israel of committing crimes against humanity.
Erdogan's visit to Iran has added to concerns that Ankara may be slowly turning its back on its Western allies and seeking to regain its status as a regional power in the Middle East.
Earlier this week, Erdogan accused the West of treating Iran unfairly over its nuclear programme, in comments that come as world powers await Tehran's response to a U.N.-drafted plan which would require it to send potential nuclear fuel abroad.
The West suspects Iran is seeking to develop nuclear arms. The Islamic Republic denies the charge and says its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity.
IRIB said Erdogan stressed Iran's nuclear rights in his meeting with Ahmadinejad. "Those who are chanting for global nuclear disarmament should first start in their own countries," Erdogan said, according to the Iranian broadcaster.
In a separate meeting in Tehran, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi told Erdogan that a "golden opportunity" existed for an expansion of bilateral ties.
Turkey, a mainly Muslim country which seeks European Union membership and which dreads the thought of a nuclear Iran, says it is willing to mediate between Iran and the West.
Bilateral Iran-Turkey trade reached $7 billion in 2008. Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told Reuters last week he hoped the two countries could finalise a $3.5 billion deal to develop part of the world's largest gas field in Iran.
Iran is Turkey's second-biggest supplier of natural gas after Russia. Turkey has said that Iranian gas can help the planned Nabucco pipeline to supply Europe and lessen the continent's dependence on Russian deliveries.
"I believe Nabucco will sooner or later understand the importance of Iran's presence," Erdogan told Ahmadinejad, referring to the pipeline consortium, IRNA news agency reported.
(Writing by Fredrik Dahl and Ibon Villelabeitia)
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