* Turkey takes 90 pct of Iran's natural gas exports
* U.S. sanctions target gas-for-gold trade
* Erdogan says talked to relevant parties
(Adds U.S. State Department, background)
By Evrim Ergin
ISTANBUL, Dec 3 Turkey will continue to buy
natural gas from Iran despite the prospect of tighter U.S.
sanctions, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said,
indicating the measures are not likely to have much impact on
the countries' gold-for-gas trade.
The U.S. Senate resoundingly approved expanded sanctions on
global trade with Iran's energy and shipping sectors on Friday
its latest effort to ratchet up economic pressure on Tehran over
its nuclear programme.
The new sanctions, which would be the third round in a year
if passed into law, include measures aimed at stopping the flow
of gold from Turkey to Iran in exchange for natural gas
supplies. Washington says Tehran is enriching uranium to levels
that could be used in nuclear weapons. Iran says the programme
is for peaceful purposes.
Erdogan said Iranian gas imports were vitally important for
Turkey, which depends heavily on imported energy and is
struggling to diversify its suppliers, and that the government
had told the relevant parties the trade would continue.
"We have always told officials that the issue is of
strategic importance to us and we couldn't comply with the
sanctions," Erdogan told a joint news conference with Russian
President Vladimir Putin on Monday.
"We are at the same point now. We told them we would carry
out the necessary swap because it's a strategic product and we
will continue in that direction in the future," he said.
Turkey, which is likely to overtake Britain as Europe's
third-biggest electricity consumer within a decade, produces the
majority of its electricity from natural gas. It takes more than
90 percent of Iran's gas exports, while Turkmenistan takes
around 10 percent.
LIRA AND GOLD
U.S. and European banking sanctions ban payments in U.S.
dollars or euros, so Iran is paid in Turkish lira, which is of
limited value for buying goods on international markets but
ideal for buying gold in Turkey.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said last month
that the lira Iran received from Turkey for its gas was being
converted into gold because sanctions meant that it could not
transfer cash into Iran.
Turkey also imports Iranian oil but has been granted
exemptions from sanctions in return for significant cuts in the
level of its purchases.
The State Department had no comment on the gas for gold
issue on Monday. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland pointed out in a
press conference last week that President Barack Obama issued an
order over the summer that allows Washington to place sanctions
on countries that provide precious metals to Iran. Nuland also
said discussions with Turkey about sanctions are ongoing.
The Obama administration has not publicly commented on the
latest sanction proposals.
The existing sanctions have already hurt Iran's economy, but
it is uncertain whether the additional measures will stop or
slow Iran's nuclear programme.
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Timothy Gardner in
Washington; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Jane Baird
and Marguerita Choy)