This provocative analysis of Turkey's nuclear ambitions, informed by current political realities and a historical summary of the country's previous plans and nuclear partnerships, asks the devil's advocate question: what do the US and EU plan to give Turkey to keep it from going nuclear?
Recent heated statements of a nuclear variety made by both Iran and Israel toward each other introduce a whole new dimension for Turkey's security concerns in its neighborhood. Given the current circumstances, Turkey could even be considered late in developing nuclear capabilities for defense purposes. However, that Turkey can and that Turkey might procure nuclear weapons are determined by two different sets of conditions. The former possibility largely depends on Turkey's financial and technical capabilities as well as political connections with nuclear powers such as Pakistan. The latter possibility depends on primarily the US', secondarily the European Union's approval.
There are legitimate reasons for them not to approve Turkey going nuclear. The question is: what do they have to offer Turkey instead, to convince it not to go nuclear? Accordingly, how can Turkey take advantage of the nuclear debate going on in its immediate neighborhood?
Despite its seemingly stable (albeit somewhat rocky) relationship with Iran, Turkey neighbors here on one of the most threatening nuclear powers of the time. Recently, openly radical Islamist and anti-democratic Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his aides seized power in the country. Accordingly, Iran has been more confrontational not only with its long time foe, the US, but also with arguably friends, or relatively less foes, the European powers. Let alone it does not comply with the rule and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on opening its all facilities for inspection.
Moreover, as some Western commentators argue, Turkey has turned to be an equally potential target for fundamentalist Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda and its global derivatives. A series of bombings in both Istanbul and Ankara in 2004 has only bolstered that argument, showing that the same terrorists who attacked the US on September 11, 2001 and Spain on March 11, 2003 would not hesitate to attack secular and democratic Turkey, either.
In addition, even though it seems to have a rather friendly relationship with Israel, Turkey is neighboring another nuclear power, one which would not think twice in case it feels obliged to use its nuclear capabilities to counter a standing national security threat. Given all these reasons, Turkey even would appear to be late in obtaining nuclear weapons, whereas some of the Western countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, have procured their nuclear powers even though they are not exposed to the same level of nuclear threat. Apparently, Turkey should have nuclear capabilities to protect itself.
Yet does Turkey qualify to go nuclear? To be realistic, whether Turkey qualifies to possess nuclear weapons or not depends not on its technological and economic capabilities, but on whether the United States, and increasingly the EU, allows Turkey to have nuclear weapons. To put it another way, whether Turkey may go nuclear or not depends on international factors, mainly on US approval, whereas whether Turkey can go nuclear or not depends on Turkey's own technological and economic capacity. It accordingly entails two questions: If the US and the EU do not approve of Turkey having nuclear weapons, what do they have to offer Turkey instead? How could the Bush administration justify its dissidence with Turkey's potential nuclear aspirations whereas it has been more than willing to tolerate India, a long time Non-Proliferation Treaty rebel, to continue its nuclear program; and similarly let North Korea continue its uranium enrichment activities?
Is the Iran-Israel Confrontation a Threat for Turkey?
It is more obvious than ever that as long as it is headed by a man who does not hesitate to publicly pronounce his aspirations to wipe another sovereign country off the map, nuclear Iran will continue to be a major threat to Turkey. Even if Iran does not directly target Turkey, its nuclear confrontation with third parties equally threatens Turkey's national security because the effects of nuclear warfare are not limited geographically as in conventional warfare. In this case, Iran's confrontation with ever-vigilant Israel is a perfect threat for Turkey.
Iran is rapidly rolling back from former President Khatami's tolerant discourse, towards the revolutionary discourse of the 1980's. On October 26, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the annihilation of the Zionist regime as one of his government's priorities during his speech at the "World without Zionism" conference. Referring to Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Mr. Ahmedinejad insisted "As the Imam said; Israel must be wiped off the map."[i]
One could reasonably attribute such an extreme statement to Mr. Ahmadinejad's political inexperience and ignorance of diplomacy. Nonetheless, it represents a major shift for Iran from Mr. Khatami's moderation back to the revolutionary doctrine. More importantly, Mr. Ahmedinejad is not exhibiting an attitude original to him and his government. As he puts it in his statements, he justifies his anti-Israeli attitude by referring to earlier statements of Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. That makes the case even more critical and threatening.
Both Tel-Aviv and Washington have responded in a relatively calmer mood to Mr. Ahmedinejad's radical statements. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, likening Mr. Ahmedinejad to another extremist and Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, noted "[t]he problem with these extremists is that they followed through on their violent declarations with violent actions."[ii] Similarly, White House press secretary Scott McClellan added "[I]t confirms what we have been saying about the regime in Iran. It underscores the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear intentions."[iii]
Although calm, these responses might set the stage for another legitimized "freedom operation" next to Turkey's border. Even if Turkey is not likely to be a direct target of any nuclear attack, it may still want to have nuclear weapons to deter attacks between its neighbors that would indirectly and yet extensively affect Turkey, especially indirect effects such as trans-border conflicts and forced migrations. A nuclear arms race reciprocated by other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq would only increase Turkey's legitimate desire to obtain nuclear weapons. However, just as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey is highly likely to face strong international opposition against its nuclear aspirations, most notably from the US and the EU.
Turkey's Nuclear Experience
Turkey has never consistently pursued a nuclear program, so far as is known to the public. However, both opportunities and demand to obtain nuclear weapons have been attested. Dave Martin of the Nuclear Awareness Project presents a short history of Turkey's nuclear weapons experience: Ankara's encounter with the available nuclear resources dates back to the time when Turkey ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on April 17, 1980 [iv].
In the same year, Turkish President/General Kenan Evren and Pakistani President/General Zia ul-Haq started to exchange ideas on cooperation in developing nuclear weapons technology, which continued up until the latter's death in a tragic plane crash in 1988. Later, in 1990-91, cooperation between Argentina and Turkey to build the CAREM-25, a 25 MW nuclear reactor in their respective territories was ceased due to international pressure [v]. In 1998, Turkey, in cooperation with several international companies sought to build a nuclear reactor at Akkuyu Bay on the Mediterranean for civilian purposes. The bidders included Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a German-French consortium (Nuclear Power International-NPI), and a partnership between Westinghouse and Mitsubishi.
However, in the same year Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif offered then Turkish President Suleyman Demirel cooperation in developing nuclear weapons on May 11, 1998 during the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) Summit in Almaty, Kazakhstan- an act which increased international suspicions that the "civil" nuclear reactor could also serve military purposes [vi]. Therefore, due to international and environmentalist pressures, the Akkuyu Nuclear Reactor project was halted as well.
In the meantime, some generals in the Turkish military have indicated their desire for Turkey to develop its own nuclear capabilities rather than to rely on international alliances like NATO. According to a news report that appeared in Turkish daily newspaper Radikal, the most notable champion of Turkish nuclear weapons was Lieutenant-General Erdogan Oznal, then-in charge of the Balikesir NATO Air Base [vii]. Recent historical experience thus indicates that both the desire and technical opportunities are available in case Turkey resolves to go nuclear.
Offers and Opportunities
So, what can the United States and the European Union offer?
The six-party talks and the EU3-Iran negotiations have proven that neither international treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor economic incentives are sufficient to convince North Korea and Iran to halt their nuclear programs [viii]. Besides that, neighbors of the respective nuclear countries have realized that reliance on international alliances instead of their own nuclear weapons could be a fatal mistake. Moreover, the Bush administration's willingness not only to tolerate but also to assist the long-time NPT rebel India in its nuclear program has only undermined the credibility of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Consequently, it convinced the willingly-non-nuclear countries - one of which could be Turkey- that they could have ratified the NPT, and yet they can go ahead and develop their own nuclear weapons, given that the US, the big-time NPT guard, and India, the big-time NPT rebel, could agree on nuclear cooperation.
The recent US-India cooperation on developing India's nuclear technologies has only bolstered the global common wisdom that the US always preaches but hardly, if ever, practices whatever it preaches. On July 18, 2005, President George W. Bush and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement establishing a "global partnership" between their countries. In addition, Mr. Bush expressed his intention to achieve full cooperation with India to strengthen its nuclear energy facilities, and ask the US Congress to adjust the current US laws to allow such cooperation [ix]. Accordingly, in the October 26th hearing of the House International Relations Committee, Chairman Henry J. Hyde noted, "[T]o implement the nuclear cooperation elements of the agreement, congressional assent must be obtained in the form of amending the relevant laws now forbidding such cooperation with India and other countries which are not in compliance with key nonproliferation practices and conventions"[x]. These recent developments have further undermined the credibility of the US' dedication to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Under these circumstances, both the US and the European Union should realize that it would not lead to positive consequences in the relations to behave in a dictatorial way with Turkey in trying to prevent it from procuring nuclear weapons. A dictatorial approach would only further diminish the level of trust in Western democratic fairness felt by Turkish society and the wider Muslim world in general. Such an approach could lead Muslims to conclude that no matter how democratic and "rational" a Muslim country can be, the Western powers will never let it be as powerful as them.
As Cirincione and Vaynman of Carnegie Endowment of International Peace suggest,[xi] US policy and rhetoric should never be dictatorial and arrogant in ways that would make officials in countries that are willingly non-nuclear conclude that Washington would be more respectful of their interests if they had their own nuclear weapons.
Accordingly, both Washington and Brussels should engage in high-level diplomacy with Turkish officials to convince Ankara that it does not need nuclear weapons to protect the country. They should assure Ankara that they are ready to discuss alternative security shields and alliances. In this vein, Brussels should address the nuclear threat Turkey faces in its European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), and accordingly expedite the negotiations for Turkey's EU membership. Similarly, Washington should encourage the EU to do its part, and be more responsive to Turkey's security concerns. In this regard, it can first start with the Kurdish PKK problem burgeoning in Northern Iraq. Doing so would also restore the US image as a reliable ally in the mind of the Turkish public.
Lastly, both Washington and Brussels could and should back Turkey's candidature for the non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council for the term 2009-2010.
Mehmet Kalyoncu is a graduate student at Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. This article was originally published in Zaman US.