the view from washington

Turkey risks ‘serious consequences’ if it blocks Sweden, Finland NATO accession, Risch warns

The senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee Republican sat down with Jewish Insider to discuss major political issues throughout the Middle East

Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) warned of “serious consequences” for Turkey if it continues to obstruct Sweden and Finland’s bids to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in an interview with Jewish Insider at his Capitol Hill office late last week.

“Turkey is a recalcitrant partner right now, and that’s the kindest thing I can say about that. We’ve got difficulties there,” Risch, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told JI.

“We have a club of 32 countries, 30 of those strongly and adamantly want to add Sweden and Finland,” he continued. “There is every reason in the world to do it. They will be great partners, they will be better partners than some who are already there and some who are even fighting it — and that’s a pretty small club of two.”

Risch said he has discussed the issue with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and said he thinks that Sweden and Finland will ultimately be admitted, but warned “there’s going to be serious consequences” if they are not. 

“When you have as much unanimity amongst the group as there is, really, if you want to belong to the club, you need to try to do what the club wants to do,” he said.

On Thursday, 27 bipartisan senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden expressing similar concerns about Turkey’s slow-walking of Finnish and Swedish accession.

Another point of contention in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, which some of Risch’s colleagues have linked to the NATO accession issue, is Turkey’s efforts to buy F-16 fighters and upgrade kits from the U.S. Risch’s Democratic counterpart, Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has vowed to block the F-16 sale, and numerous other senators have also expressed concerns. 

Risch said that he sees the question of Turkey’s request to buy F-16s as “totally disconnected” from Swedish and Finnish NATO accession, “other than if they’re not playing ball with the rest of NATO on Sweden and Finland, why in the world do we want them as part of the club?”

He noted his past opposition to the sale of more advanced F-35s to Ankara in light of Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia, but said that Turkey has made a “better case” for the F-16 sale given that “they use the F-16s to guard the eastern flank of NATO.”

Risch also discussed the current violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

“We’ve hit kind of a perfect storm that’s the result of internal politics on both sides, and that is very, very difficult to control,” Risch said. 

“Having said that,” he continued, “that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t try.”

Risch said that the fact that all sides involved recognize the volatility “gives us at least a one-up when we’re looking at it now instead of six months after the fact.” Risch alluded to some plans — including one discussed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II with Risch and others on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week — that are being floated to reduce the temperature in the region, but said he couldn’t elaborate further at the time.

On a more hopeful note, Risch said that he and his colleagues “meet regularly” with officials from countries that are “natural additions” to the Abraham Accords, and “and that’s one of the things that’s right at the top of the agenda that we do discuss with them.”

The Idaho senator said that discussions show that the leaders themselves are eager to sign on to the Accords, but that “internal political issues” are an obstacle to their joining.

The “easy part,” Risch said, is brokering relationships between Arab leaders and Israel, which is an area that is easy for the U.S. to encourage — ”and frankly it doesn’t take much encouragement on either side to move them there,” given the positive results from the existing normalization agreements. Overcoming internal political obstacles to normalization “is a very difficult part — and we can’t do as much there,” Risch continued.

When it comes to Iran policy, Risch highlighted two key dynamics on Capitol Hill.

“We have a  basic difference with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle” about the nuclear deal with Tehran, Risch said, calling it “good news” that no new deal has been signed. But legislators’ stances on supporting the Iranian protesters, he added, are “an easy one.”

“I can’t imagine there’s any daylight between any senators or congressmen on [backing anti-regime protesters],” Risch explained.

In terms of action Congress can take in the new term to support the protesters, “we’ve got [the Islamic republic] sanctioned about as far as we can sanction them,” Risch said. “If it were up to me, we’d sanction them even more — I want to tighten it even more, I want to go to secondary sanctions.”

Risch said that the committee’s top priority this year will likely continue to be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — ”it’s sucking the oxygen out of the air everywhere… and it affects everything. It affects relationships with Israel and it affects relationships with Jordan… and all the relationships between countries in the world.” The Idaho senator called the invasion “one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Risch indicated that he does not share concerns, voiced by others in Washington, about the new Israeli government’s stance on the conflict.

“They have other considerations, because of some dealings that they have with Russia. And I think friends need to make allowances for different situations,” Risch said. “So I’m not one that is going to criticize in that regard. I would if they went to the point where they started sympathizing or even trying to justify or something like that… I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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