ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
On Sunday, the U.S. stopped issuing nonimmigrant visas in Turkey after Turkish authorities arrested an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. Turkey responded in kind – now no new visas for tourism or business going either way. And then Turkey issued a warrant for another embassy employee. Turkey says its actions are part of a crackdown on people who plotted to overthrow the government last year. Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, and he joins us via Skype from Bologna, Italy. Welcome to the program once again, Soner.
SONER CAGAPTAY: It’s a pleasure.
SIEGEL: Are you surprised that U.S.-Turkey relations have degenerated to this point?
CAGAPTAY: Not really. And I think this is really a culmination of nearly a decade and a half of Erdogan’s government in Turkey that has finally culminated in a crisis. I’m surprised, though, because Washington has always looked the other way, gave Erdogan the benefit of doubt because Washington always believed that Turkey is bigger than Erdogan and therefore managed the relationship with him. This will be the first time that Washington implemented a policy that it knew would end up in a crisis. So that’s the surprising part, that the United States now actually said, enough; we’ve got to draw the line here.
SIEGEL: If Turkey’s concern really is all about Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric whom Turkey accuses of plotting the attempted coup in 2016, it doesn’t seem likely that the U.S. is about to extradite Gulen. Is this a crisis with no obvious end?
CAGAPTAY: Now, there is consensus among analysts in Washington that officers aligned with the Gulen movement formed the backbone, if not the core, of this failed coup plot. The problem, though, is that the Turkish government cannot produce evidence directly linking Gulen to the coup plot, and I think in the absence of concrete evidence, it’s going to be really hard to convince American courts to decide in favor of his extradition. And that really angers Erdogan but also the broader Turkish public. So I think the Gulen issue remains that thorn in U.S.-Turkish relationship until the Turks can prove concrete evidence.
SIEGEL: And we should say Gulen denies ordering that coup – did so on this program. And they even deny that Gulenist officers played an outsized role in this, they say. Officers of all sorts did so. But there’s another person at work here in this story – Reza Zarrab, who also is actually in U.S. custody. What’s his story?
CAGAPTAY: Reza Zarrab is a Turkish-Iranian dual citizen who’s allegedly violated U.S.-led sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. He lived in Turkey. He recently arrived in the United States on vacation. He was taken in by U.S. prosecutors, and a court case is being brought against him. The problem is Zarrab is Erdogan’s black box. He knows about sanction busting. If he speaks, that will put Erdogan in trouble. And therefore I think Erdogan wants Zarrab to be returned to Turkey.
SIEGEL: And the suspicion is that he’s been arresting people in Turkey to have essentially people to trade for Zarrab, if not for Gulen.
CAGAPTAY: Unfortunately that seems to be the case. He’s been implying himself that he’s ready to trade people. He’s saying, I have Americans, and I’m ready to trade them. And he has not said that he wants to trade Zarrab per se, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that came up in private conversations between Erdogan and President Trump.
SIEGEL: Do you get any sense of a desire – a mutual desire here to climb down from this current crisis?
CAGAPTAY: I do because following the mutual suspension of visa applications by both countries, Erdogan criticized unfortunately so far the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, who’s actually a great ambassador. But he did not criticize the White House or the U.S. administration, which means he’s leaving a door open for the White House or administration to reach out to him for a bargain. And I think that the two countries are actually already looking to come down the ladder.
SIEGEL: Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His new book about Turkey’s president is called “The New Sultan: Erdogan And The Crisis Of Modern Turkey.” Thanks for talking with us.
CAGAPTAY: It’s always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.