By Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had reiterated Ankara’s desire to buy F-16 fighter jets from the United States, while Biden told him Washington wanted that Ankara renounce its objection to Sweden joining NATO.
The exchange took place when Biden called Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory in the Turkish presidential election on Sunday.
“I spoke to Erdogan. I congratulated Erdogan. He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him that we want an agreement with Sweden, so let’s do it. And so we will reconnect with one another,” Biden told reporters before leaving the White House for Delaware.
Asked if he expected a move from Erdogan on Sweden’s NATO membership, Biden said: “I raised this issue with him. We’ll talk more about it later. next week.”
Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership last year, abandoning longstanding policies of military non-alignment after Russia invaded Ukraine. Applications for membership must be endorsed by all NATO members. Turkey and Hungary have yet to approve Sweden’s candidacy.
Turkey has sought to purchase $20 billion worth of F-16s and nearly 80 retrofit kits from the United States. But the sale was blocked due to objections from the US Congress over Ankara’s refusal to greenlight NATO expansion, its human rights record and Syria policy, even though the Biden administration has repeatedly said it supports the sale.
A much smaller $259 million package including avionics software upgrades for Turkey’s current fleet of F-16 fighter jets was approved by the US Congress earlier this year, days after the Turkey has ratified Finland’s membership in NATO.
The Biden administration has repeatedly rejected any claims of any “quid pro quo” between the sale and NATO expansion, although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in January that the US side made it clear that an endorsement of the NATO offers would be viewed positively by Congress.
A bipartisan group of senators in a February letter to Biden said Turkey’s failure to ratify Sweden’s and Finland’s membership protocols, which were still pending at the time, “would call that sale into question. ongoing,” referring to the F-16s.
A source familiar with the talks said the United States had previously told Turkey that it would be difficult to get the F-16 deal through Congress if Ankara does not give Sweden the green light.
Turkey ratified Finland’s NATO membership in late March, but has continued to oppose Sweden, saying Stockholm harbors members of militant groups it considers terrorists. Hungary has not yet approved Sweden’s application either.
Seeing Sweden join NATO by mid-July, when the alliance is due to hold a leaders’ summit in Lithuania, is among Washington’s top priorities.
The Turkish Presidency, in a statement on the call between Biden and Erdogan, said the two leaders agreed to deepen cooperation on all aspects of their bilateral relationship, which has grown in importance in the face of regional challenges and global.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Leslie Adler, Chris Reese and Tom Hogue)