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Erdogan Urges U.S. To Review 'Political' Charges Against Turkish Ex-Minister

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) arrives for a news conference as he is flanked by former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan. File photo 2013

(Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan urged the United States on Friday to review charges against a Turkish former minister for violating U.S.-Iran sanctions, saying Ankara had never agreed to comply with the embargo and the prosecution was politically motivated. "There are very peculiar smells coming from this issue," Erdogan said.

Former economy minister Zafer Caglayan and the ex-head of a state-owned Turkish bank were charged with conspiring to violate the sanctions by illegally moving hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on Tehran's behalf.

The indictment, announced this week, marked the first time an ex-government member with close ties to Erdogan had been charged in an investigation that has strained ties between Washington and Ankara.

"For the moment, it is impossible to evaluate this within legal logic," Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul's Ataturk airport. "I see this step against our former economy minister as a step against the Turkish Republic.

"We didn't decide to impose sanctions on Iran. We have bilateral ties with Iran, sensitive relations," he said, adding he had told former U.S. President Barack Obama as much, when the sanctions were in force. "We said to the relevant people, we said we would not take part in sanctions... These steps are purely political."

Prosecutors in New York said on Wednesday they had charged Caglayan and former Halkbank general manager Suleyman Aslan and two others with "conspiring to use the U.S. financial system to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of transactions on behalf of the government of Iran and other Iranian entities, which were barred by United States sanctions."

The charges stem from the case against Reza Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader who was arrested in the United States over sanctions evasion last year. He has pleaded not guilty.

Reuters was not able to reach Caglayan or Aslan for comment. Relations between Washington and NATO ally Turkey, an important partner in tackling the Syrian conflict, were strained after a failed coup against Erdogan in July last year and the president's subsequent crackdown on opposition.

"The United States needs to revise this decision (to charge Caglayan)," Erdogan said. "I hope we'll get a chance to discuss this issue in the United States. You may be a big nation, but being a just nation is something else. Being a just nation requires the legal system to work fairly."