Turkey frees US scientist but tensions remain

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a conference on judicial reform strategy in Ankara, Turkey, on May 30, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Updated 30 May 2019
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Turkey frees US scientist but tensions remain

  • Serkan Golge was freed shortly after Erdogan spoke by telephone with US President Donald Trump
  • Turkish authorities charged Golge with ties to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen

WASHING: Turkey on Wednesday released a NASA scientist with dual US-Turkish citizenship whose nearly three-year detention had soured relations, but the NATO allies remained divided over issues including Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile system.
Serkan Golge, a naturalized US citizen working for the US space agency in Houston, was arrested in July 2016 on a visit back to Turkey in the aftermath of a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish authorities charged Golge with ties to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accused of orchestrating the mutiny. Golge was sentenced in 2018 to seven and a half years in prison despite US State Department protests that there was no credible evidence.
His wife, Kubra Golge, expressed joy at his release but said that he remained banned from traveling outside Turkey.
“We are happy but he still rejects the charges against him,” she told AFP by email. “Hope we can come back soon to the US.”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that the United States would press for Golge to be able to return to the United States “as soon as possible.”
“We want to commend them for doing the right thing today by releasing him,” Ortagus told reporters. “We think it’s welcome news.”
Ortagus said that the United States was still seeking the release of detained local employees of US diplomatic missions in Turkey.
Golge was freed shortly after Erdogan spoke by telephone with US President Donald Trump, although an official summary by Turkey did not mention discussion of the Golge case.
Turkey in October also released an American pastor caught up in the crackdown, Andrew Brunson. His case had become a cause celebre among the conservative Christian base of Trump, who pressed Turkey through tariffs that sent the lira currency into a tailspin.
Golge’s case had triggered growing anger in the United States. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced a bill seeking sanctions on Turkish officials involved in the detention of US citizens, saying that Ankara’s actions did not befit a NATO ally.
But Turkey still is at risk of US sanctions over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. Washington is pressing Ankara to instead buy the US Patriot equivalent.
Erdogan has said the S-400 purchase was a “done deal” but in the phone call with Trump reiterated an offer to form a joint working group on the decision, according to the Turkish president’s office.
The State Department voiced appreciation for Turkey as an ally but reiterated concerns about the deal, which US officials say could help Russia hone its system to target US hardware used by NATO.
“We’re willing to engage with the Turkish government but our position remains the same that Turkey will face very real and very negative consequences if it completes the delivery of the S-400,” Ortagus said.
The United States has already suspended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Turkey had invested $1 billion.
Washington and Ankara have also clashed over Syria, with Trump promising to pull out all 2,000 US troops from the war-battered nation following a December phone conversation with Erdogan.
Trump has since slowed down the withdrawal partly because his aides fear that Turkey will use the absence of US troops to strike Syrian Kurdish fighters. The forces helped defeat extremists from the Daesh group, but Ankara associates them with separatists at home.


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.