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Turkey's new foreign minister is a former spymaster

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And now a look at the former spymaster making foreign policy moves in Turkey, a country with a pivotal role to play on the world stage, sitting as it does between East and West. That's Turkey's new foreign minister. Appointed after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a new term in May, he comes from the country's intelligence service and has had a lot of influence behind the scenes. And now he's out in front and seems to be working to make a stormy region a little more stable. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Shortly after being named foreign minister, Hakan Fidan met with his counterpart from neighboring Greece. At the ensuing news conference, Fidan and declared that the two countries that have often found themselves at odds were entering, quote, "a new and positive phase in our relations."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAKAN FIDAN: (Through interpreter) The revival of dialogue channels and high-level contacts is a positive development for us. My colleague and I reaffirmed our mutual will to continue this, and we reiterated our belief that the problems will be solved through constructive dialogue between two neighbors and allies.

KENYON: This was a sharp contrast to the tone just a few years ago, when Turkish and Greek officials traded bitter accusations over drilling rights in the Aegean Sea, among other things. These days, Fidan said, even issues as thorny as that can and should be resolved, quote, "with respect for mutual rights and interests."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FIDAN: (Through interpreter) We have differences of opinion in the Aegean. We have been discussing them, and we agree to bring new approaches to solve the problems.

KENYON: Fidan's early career as intelligence chief sparked concern in some countries, notably Israel. But over the years, according to multiple reports, Israel and other countries started to see Fidan as refashioning the Turkish intelligence agency into a non-political, forward-looking service that got results. Fidan has also had a long and close relationship with Prime Minister and then President Erdogan. Analyst Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace (ph) says Fidan was sometimes referred to as Erdogan's black box, and he stood by him during some tumultuous times.

SONER CAGAPTAY: He has been with Erdogan during the Arab uprisings. When Erdogan tried to install like-minded leaders in power in places such as Egypt and Syria, Fidan was with Erdogan. When Turkey suffered a coup attempt, Fidan and his agency - they stood up against the coup plotters from within the military. And so Fidan has been at Erdogan's side at every turn.

KENYON: Fidan also impressed Turkey's allies, including in Washington.

CAGAPTAY: When Fidan came to Washington as Turkey's intelligence chief and had meetings in the Senate and with the U.S. government, everyone at the time who met him told me that they were quite impressed by his command of topics, the English language and the ability to engage anyone in discussions where he left people quite impressed.

KENYON: As for what Fidan's leadership might mean for Turkey's foreign policy, Cagaptay and others say the bottom line is that he's already proved himself to be a safe pair of hands when it comes to managing Turkey's international affairs and its role as a NATO and Western ally. But Cagaptay also says Fidan is bringing a number of intelligence officials with them to the foreign ministry, and he says that speaks volumes about the rising profile of Turkey's intelligence agency.

CAGAPTAY: So you could say that Turkey's intelligence agency is probably the most powerful foreign policy and national security decision-making agency inside the country right now.

KENYON: Observers from inside and outside Turkey will be watching to see how Fidan decides to wield that power in the coming months. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALICIA KEYS SONG, "UN-THINKABLE (I'M READY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.