World News

Erdogan Orders Retaliatory Sanctions as Clash Escalates Over U.S. Pastor

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Saturday that he was ordering reciprocal sanctions against two U.S. officials in retaliation for U.S. measures against two of his ministers, escalating a diplomatic wrangle between the NATO allies.

Posted Updated

Carlotta Gall
, New York Times

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Saturday that he was ordering reciprocal sanctions against two U.S. officials in retaliation for U.S. measures against two of his ministers, escalating a diplomatic wrangle between the NATO allies.

“Those who think that they can make Turkey take a step back with ridiculous sanctions have never known this country or this nation,” Erdogan said in a speech in the capital, Ankara. “We have never bowed our heads to such pressure and will never do so.”

The Turkish action came after the White House announced sanctions freezing the assets of the Turkish interior and justice ministers this past week, in protest against Turkey’s detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson.

Erdogan said he would order his government to “freeze the assets” in Turkey of the U.S. counterparts of the targeted Turkish officials, describing them as “the U.S. justice and interior ministers.” Such an order would be largely symbolic. It’s unclear whether U.S. officials would have assets in Turkey.

The United States has sought the release of Brunson, 50, who leads the evangelical Resurrection Church in the city of Izmir, since his detention 21 months ago on charges of espionage and assisting terrorist groups. U.S. officials say Brunson is innocent and is being held by the Turkish government as a bargaining chip to leverage its interests in U.S. court cases.

Vice President Mike Pence has taken up the case of the pastor, as have several U.S. senators, describing him as a prisoner of conscience. President Donald Trump has raised the case personally with Erdogan, including in a phone call.

The case is just one of a litany of disagreements between Turkey and the United States, including U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the United States’ refusal to extradite the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Erdogan of instigating the 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish president.

Washington has been angered by Turkey’s detention of 20 U.S. citizens, including Brunson, and three employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey, calling it hostage diplomacy. Another point of friction is Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system, which flies in the face of cooperation within NATO.

Erdogan, who amassed sweeping new powers with his re-election in June to an enhanced presidential system, has maintained his popularity with strong nationalist, anti-U.S. rhetoric. He has frequently blamed Turkey’s growing economic problems on a foreign plot, but few political analysts say he is ready to break Turkey’s alliance with the United States and with NATO.

Still, his constant sparring over multiple issues has tested relations with Europe, NATO and Washington.

Negotiations over Brunson seemed to have failed last month when a Turkish court ordered his continued detention. His conditions were eased to house arrest after U.S. protests. Brunson wept as he described suffering psychological difficulties in detention during an earlier hearing. His trial is set to continue in October.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced financial sanctions against Abdulhamit Gul, Turkey’s justice minister, and Suleyman Soylu, the interior minister. Both are seen as acolytes of Erdogan.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the use of sanctions against a NATO ally was a signal of how seriously the United States regarded Turkey’s actions.

“The Turks were well on notice that the clock had run out and that it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned. I hope they’ll see this for what it is: a demonstration that we’re very serious,” Pompeo told reporters Friday on his way to a Southeast Asia security conference in Singapore.

Pompeo made the appeal before his meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of the conference, after previously pressing the case at least three times by phone.

Cavusoglu responded after their meeting by saying that harsh tactics by the United States would not work, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency.

“Since the beginning, we have been saying that a solution cannot be reached by using threatening language and sanctions,” Cavusoglu was quoted as saying. “Today we repeated that. And we believe that is understood very well.”

In his speech Saturday, Erdogan said that the United States had taken steps that did not suit the strategic partnership between the two countries. “America has been seriously disrespectful against Turkey with that step,” he said.

“It is absolutely impossible to accept such an approach against my ministers who do not have any assets in the U.S.,” Erdogan said. Erdogan also complained that the United States was defending Brunson, whom he accused of having relations with the Gulen movement and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, both designated terrorist organizations in Turkey. Brunson has denied the charges.

He also complained that the United States had convicted Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the deputy director of the state-owned Halkbank, for having a role in conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, and was pursuing further cases against the bank.

Political analysts have suggested in recent news reports that U.S. and Turkish officials were working out a deal for the release of Brunson in return for Atilla, but that Turkey had stalled at the last minute.

But Erdogan cast the latest sanctions as an imperial plot, in familiar rousing rhetoric that is popular among his conservative, nationalist followers. “This is the manifestation of only an evangelist and Zionist approach,” he said.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.