Turkey-US rift widens with sanctions against ministers

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as he arrives at Anitkabir in Ankara on Thursday. (Reuters)
Updated 02 August 2018

Turkey-US rift widens with sanctions against ministers

  • Turkey will refuse to make any concessions on judicial independence in the face of the Trump administration’s threats
  • The longer the Brunson situation remains unresolved the more likely that US-Turkish relations will remain strained and further deteriorate

ANKARA: Washington and Ankara are heading into increasingly turbulent waters as the NATO allies take unprecedented steps against each other.

On Wednesday, the US Treasury issued sanctions against Turkish officials, including Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in retaliation for Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was held for almost for two years before recently being placed under house arrest.
The US Treasury views Brunson’s arrest as a serious human rights abuse.
Assets and properties of the two Turkish officials under US jurisdiction will be blocked and US citizens will be forbidden from engaging in financial transactions with them.
The US has prepared a list of Turkish entities and individuals to target if Ankara refuses to release the pastor. The sanctions are based on the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, which allows Washington to target individuals, companies or other entities involved in human rights abuses around the world.
On the same day, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved a defense policy bill which includes a halt to the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon issues a report within three months. Ankara has been engaged in the F-35 program since 1999, while the Turkish defense industry has played an active role in the production of the aircraft.
However, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will refuse to make any concessions on judicial independence in the face of the Trump administration’s threats.
As well as Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees from the US mission in Turkey have also been detained over alleged links to terror organizations.
The US economic assaults are expected to continue with a hefty fine on state-run Turkish Halkbank for its role in evading US sanctions against Iran. The sanctions will severely damage the Turkish banking sector, according to some experts.
Following the announcement, Turkey’s lira already hit a record low of five against the dollar.
Experts believe that Ankara is likely to take counter-measures against Washington, possibly even seizing the assets of the US president and government leaders in Turkey, including Trump Tower in Istanbul.
As a second option, another attempt to contain the crisis through high-level meetings may also be on table.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet his Turkish counterpart shortly.
“We all know that there are serious flaws in Turkish justice system and its independence must be improved. We in Turkey work hard toward that goal and will be pleased to see constructive support in this regard,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club, told Arab News.
However, for Ogutcu, such an intervention from the US side is counterproductive and will harden Turkey’s resolve to guard its sovereign rights and national pride.
“Turkey, a powerful NATO ally, an OECD member and EU partner, cannot be treated like North Korea, Iran or Russia. The relations will benefit from a comprehensive overhaul of diplomatic, security and economic ties, as well as positive engagement rather than such treats and sanctions,” he said.
Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that the detention of the pastor is merely one symptom of a deepening rift.
“If the Brunson case was an isolated one it would be significant, but given historic distrust between Washington and Ankara it is magnified tenfold,” he said.
“There is a strong belief across the political spectrum in Washington, not only in the Trump administration, that Brunson is being unfairly used as a pawn to achieve certain objectives of Erdogan.”
According to Katz, this feeds into a widely accepted narrative in Washington and the West that Turkey under Erdogan leadership has drifted toward authoritarianism, away from the West and NATO, and discarded democracy, human rights and rule of law.
“The longer the Brunson situation remains unresolved the more likely that US-Turkish relations will remain strained and further deteriorate. It will also make it more difficult to collectively address other challenges in the bilateral relationship, including policy toward Syria, Turkey’s relations with Russia and its purchase of S-400 missile system,” he said.
Experts also caution about a potential tit-for-tat response on sanctions between the two countries, which would further strain relations.
“Ankara could immediately deescalate this situation, including reversing US application of sanctions, by releasing Brunson and canceling its purchase of the Russian S-400 system,” Katz said.
A more comprehensive strategy was needed to rebuild trust and break the current impasse, he said.

Iran must stop supporting militias for peace offer to be taken seriously: Expert 

Updated 26 May 2019

Iran must stop supporting militias for peace offer to be taken seriously: Expert 

  • Iran has for long pursued a policy of outsourcing its meddling to external militias
  • Among these are the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen

JEDDAH: Iran needs to dismantle its proxies and end its interventions in Arab affairs before seeking to normalize relations with its Gulf neighbors, a political expert told Arab News on Sunday.

“The Gulf countries have been calling for normal relations with their neighbors for years, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears on the Iranian side,” Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international relations scholar, said.

Accusing Tehran of “playing games,” Al-Shehri described Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s suggestion that Iran wanted to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors as worthless “as long as it continues meddling in the affairs of other countries, and fails to halt its evil militias from sabotaging and destabilizing regional security.”

Iran has for long pursued a policy of outsourcing its meddling to external militias, which indirectly supports, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. 

Zarif, who is on a two-day visit to Iraq, told a joint news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Al-Hakim that Iran wants to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors and had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.

However, Al-Shehri said that Tehran needs to address three key issues — its nuclear program; its terrorist militias, which have been spreading chaos in the Gulf region and beyond; and its ballistic missile program — before making any such proposals.

“The question is, would Iran be ready to give up all three files? If they want their neighbors to accept them and normalize relations with them, they have to be honest and stop playing games,” he said.

Al-Shehri described Zarif’s regional tour as an attempt to rally support and send a false message that Iran has friends and allies who would stand by them in their crisis with the US.

“Where were these countries when Iran’s terrorist proxies in Yemen, the Houthi militias, launched missiles and drones attacking the holiest Islamic site in Makkah and other Saudi facilities?” Al-Shehri asked.

Zarif said Iran will defend itself against any military or economic aggression, calling on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear agreement his country signed.

“We will defend (ourselves) against any war efforts, whether it be an economic war or a military one, and we will face these efforts with strength,” he said.

Strains have increased between Iran and the US following this month’s sabotage attack on oil tankers in the Gulf. Washington and other regional allies have concluded that Iran is most likely behind the attacks. 

Tehran has distanced itself from the bombings, but the US has sent an aircraft carrier and extra 1,500 troops to the Gulf, sparking concerns over the risk of conflict in the volatile region.