Despite Everything, Turkey and the U.S. Are Getting Closer

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It was only three months ago that President Donald Trump was boasting about sanctions designed to cripple Turkey’s economy. On Monday, Turkey became one of eight countries to receive an exemption from sanctions designed to cripple Iran's economy.   

Granted, in the interim, a few things happened. To start, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month finally allowed the American pastor Andrew Brunson to leave his jail cell and return home. His imprisonment had been a major irritant with Trump, who believed Erdogan had backed out of an earlier deal to free him. Brunson’s release came when Erdogan had some leverage because of Saudi Arabia’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish consulate in Istanbul. Erdogan’s government has been dripping out details of that Saudi crime for a month, but has yet to release an audio recording of the crime itself.

Add to this Erdogan’s decision to tone down his anti-American rhetoric. He used to be “defiant and outspoken” about the Iran sanctions, says Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament and scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. No longer. The Turks have not stopped buying Iranian oil altogether, but they are buying less of it.

The U.S. line on Turkey has also softened — beyond granting Turkey an exemption from the Iranian oil sanctions. The U.S. Treasury lifted sanctions related to the detention of Brunson last week on two senior Turkish officials.

So it would be easy to see last summer’s hostility between Ankara and Washington as a blip on the radar. As a senior Turkish official told me Monday, the new tone of U.S. Turkish relations is “how it is supposed to be.” He added: “What happened before this was an anomaly. This is normal.”

And yet there are still many abnormalities and irritants in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. One such area is the case of Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist who, like Brunson, was arrested in 2016 in a sweep of alleged supporters of an attempted military coup. Brunson is free today, but Golge — along with two other Turkish nationals who worked for the U.S. consulate in Istanbul — remains in detention.

Then there is Turkey’s purchase, finalized last year, of the Russian S-400 air defense system. This is a problem because Turkey is a member of NATO, and NATO’s principal adversary these days is Russia.  The Turks also continue to work against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, recently shelling their positions in northern Syria.

Finally, there is Iran itself. The last time the U.S. imposed secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, the state-run Halkbank was implicated in the largest sanctions-evasion scheme in history. In May, a U.S. court jailed an executive from that bank for his involvement in the scandal.

Over the weekend, Erdogan said he discussed Halkbank in a phone call with Trump. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities on Monday ordered the arrest of one of the prosecution’s witnesses in that case for violating building codes in his Istanbul villa.   

Perhaps Trump has a plan to address Golge, Halkbank, the S-400 and Turkish military shelling in Syria. But so far it looks like Erdogan is being rewarded for releasing an American pastor who should never have been detained and blowing the whistle on a Saudi murder that should never have been authorized.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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