WASHINGTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s new chairman on Thursday said he would look at Turkey’s $20 billion Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) F-16 fighter jet deal and that more issues than Sweden’s ascension to NATO would affect the decision on lifting his predecessor’s longstanding hold.
“I need to talk to the administration on a lot of these issues, because it’s beyond just one issue involved, and I need to understand that,” Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, told reporters, one day after he took over leadership of the influential panel.
Cardin said he had discussed Sweden’s NATO accession with Turkish officials at a NATO ambassador’s meeting on Wednesday.
“They claim that will be done in the first part of next month,” he said. “If that is in fact true, then at least we have the NATO issue resolved, but there are other issues in addition to just NATO accession that need to be part of our discussions as we move forward.”
The previous chairman, Senator Bob Menendez, had blocked the sale for months, over Turkey’s objections to Sweden joining NATO but also over President Tayyip Erdogan’s human rights record and overflights of the airspace of neighboring Greece.
Senate rules forced Menendez to step down as leader of the committee after prosecutors announced he and his wife, Nadine Menendez, faced felony bribery charges.
Leaders of the U.S. Senate and House foreign affairs panels review every major foreign arms sale. They regularly ask questions or raise concerns over human rights or diplomatic issues that can delay or stop such deals.
Ankara has held out on the ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership for months, accusing Stockholm of doing too little against people Turkey sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Erdogan said in July he would forward the ratification to parliament when it reopens in October, frustrating some members of Congress who said he could have called it back into session to move Sweden’s NATO membership.
After Menendez’s indictment was unsealed, Erdogan said Turkey should turn the senator’s legal troubles into an opportunity to purchase the fighter jets. “Menendez being out of the picture is an advantage,” Erdogan was quoted as telling reporters by Turkish media.
Sweden and Finland applied last year to enter NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine. While Finnish membership was sealed in April, Sweden’s bid remains held up by Turkey and Hungary.
Turkey has said Ankara and Budapest are working in close coordination on the issue.
The top Republican on the Senate panel, Senator Jim Risch, has put a hold on arms sales to Hungary over the issue.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis
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Patricia Zengerle has reported from more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. An award-winning Washington-based national security and foreign policy reporter who also has worked as an editor, Patricia has appeared on NPR, C-Span and other programs, spoken at the National Press Club and attended the Hoover Institution Media Roundtable. She is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence.