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Mixed Messages from Ankara

Following the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in late June, many observers wondered if Turkey’s foreign policy would remain capable of pragmatism and compromise, or whether it would take a more defiant and openly confrontational direction, particularly in regard to Turkey’s Western partners.

So far, Ankara has sent a flurry of mixed messages:

On the economy, speculation centered on how a newly empowered Erdogan would responded to rising inflation: conform with economic orthodoxy and raise interest rates, or force Turkey’s central bank to abide by his unorthodox ideological preferences and keep them as low as possible. After Erdogan put his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, in charge of the economy, Albayrak seemed eager to reassure nervous markets. He insisted the independence of the central bank would be respected, and made a show of meeting with a group of esteemed economic experts. Pro-government media echoed Albayrak’s claim that Turkey would not “fight the markets,” but pursue a harmonized “win-win” approach. So, it came as an understandable surprise to many when, on July 25, the Central Bank announced that it would not be raising interest rates, prompting a sudden drop in the value of the lira.

Conversely, on Iran sanctions, an issue which could quickly become one of the central conflicts in U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkey has paired defiant rhetoric with seemingly more pragmatic behavior. Last week, a U.S. delegation visited Ankara to discuss the implementation of renewed U.S. sanctions beginning in November. The issue is bound to be sensitive: Turkey purchases roughly half of all its crude oil imports from Iran, and is already dealing with the legal and political fallout from its participation in an earlier sanctions-busting scheme. Ankara continues to insist that it will ignore U.S. sanctions, with Erdogan insisting that, “Iran is both our neighbor and our strategic partner,” and his Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, stating, “we are not obliged to respect any country’s sanctions against Iran.” And yet, at the same time, reports have emerged that Turkey is quietly reducing its imports of Iranian oil, suggesting that Ankara might be preparing to meet the United States halfway.

Finally, in regard to the case of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson, currently the most high-profile issue on the U.S.-Turkish agenda, prospects of a pragmatic solution have been repeatedly raised and then dashed. Even here, the story remains one of vacillation and uncertainty. Immediately after his re-election, Erdogan met with several U.S. Senators who had been leading the push for sanctions against Turkey. Following the meeting, the Senators seemed optimistic about a resolution, but were surprised when, on July 19, a Turkish court gave no ground. This led to a new, much harsher sanctions bill followed by the news that Brunson had been transferred to house arrest. This created an initial expectation that Brunson’s release had been negotiated, and his full release was just a matter of time. However, this optimism quickly gave way to an increasingly high-stakes war of words between Washington and Ankara amidst conflicting accounts of how negotiations to free Brunson broke down. Now, with both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatening Turkey with more sanctions, it will take a newfound measure of diplomacy to prevent the situation from escalation.

In exploring possible post-election scenarios, BPC wrote that if Erdogan won, he “would likely rely on the same mix of pragmatic concessions and aggressive defiance that have characterized his foreign policy in recent years.” So far, Ankara seems to have followed this pattern, if in a slightly more confused and confusing manner than before. Or, as Erdogan recently said of Turkey’s new status quo, “in this system, anything could happen at any moment. There is no guarantee of anything.”

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