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Turkey must be thinking of the Bomb

While NATO wobbles and strongmen prosper, a newly authoritarian Turkey might turn towards nuclear options.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant groundbreaking ceremony (Photo Murat Kula/Getty)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant groundbreaking ceremony (Photo Murat Kula/Getty)

Actors not invested in the Western liberal order are enjoying a period of resurgence. While analysts chase meaning in US President Donald Trump’s many erratic policies, there are some threads of consistency, including his affection for strongmen and his scepticism about the existing economic and security orders. Whether this is by design or incompetence is debatable, but it has incentivised a range of once off-limits security policies particularly of interest to those with a dictatorial bent.

The contrast between the international political climate of 2015 and the present is hard to understate.

The policy with the most profound long-term implications is Trump’s embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has effectively been rewarded for his family’s nuclear ambitions. Until recently, nuclear aspirants were more likely to end up on the gallows (Saddam Hussein) or bayoneted in ditches (Muammar Gaddafi). Yet in 2018, Kim has used his nuclear capability to obtain a degree of legitimacy in exchange for few concessions or concrete commitments.

This reintroduction of nuclear weapons as a legitimate security currency emboldens potential proliferators, presenting a challenge to one of the key norms of international politics. Turkey is one of many actors who will be watching carefully. There are strong incentives for a nuclear pathway given Turkey’s vulnerabilities and strategic position.

Turkey has historically eschewed a nuclear program because it already housed nuclear weapons: the US has stationed missiles there since 1959. As part of NATO agreements, an estimated 50 B61 bombs still remain on Turkish soil at Incirlik Air Base, in the country’s south, as a deterrence measure. 

But Trump’s disdain for NATO threatens this arrangement. In fact, a 2015 Carnegie paper assessing Turkey’s nuclear posture argued that the most probable scenario under which Turkey would seek nuclear weapons would be a collapse of its relationships with NATO and the US.

A variety of actors have an interest in Turkey losing its proxy nuclear deterrent. Russia has embraced Ankara as a defence partner, selling it the S-400 missile shield which hedges against total NATO dependence. Both Iran and Syria would welcome the removal of nuclear weapons from Incirlik, as it would reduce the US security presence in the region.

There are signs that Turkey has contingency plans for the removal of weapons too, demonstrated by their pursuit of nuclear latency: the material and technical capabilities to produce weapons within a short time frame should the need should arise.

A first piece of evidence is Turkey’s consistent pursuit of nuclear energy, which would enable the establishment of a fuel cycle to manufacture weapons. Ankara first began pursuing nuclear power in the 1970s, but these efforts were disbanded after Pakistan’s controversial nuclear test in 1998. Turkey then held concerns that any nuclear activity might be problematic for their attempts to join the EU following widespread criticism of Islamabad.

This reticence has changed in the current international environment. Work recently commenced on the Akkuyu nuclear station on the Mediterranean Coast. The station interests strategic analysts for a variety of reasons: it has a quick build time – five years compared to the International Atomic Energy Agency – recommended 10–15 years; and it will be the first nuclear station ever built under a BOO (Buy Own Operate) model. The contractor is the Russian company Rosatom, and operations, ownership of processes, and inspection regimes are legislatively unclear under the BOO model.

The second piece of evidence is the increasing speed of Turkey’s indigenous ballistic missile program and associated defence products. The first fully indigenous missile, the KAAN, developed by state company ROKETAN, was demonstrated in April 2017. Its development coincided with an increase of 39% in domestic defence development from 2016–17.

Others have highlighted Ankara’s thinly veiled aspirations to proliferate, but assert Turkey lacks material capabilities and that claims should be viewed in a domestic context. For example, former parliamentarian Aykan Erdemir has argued that “Erdogan has a strong desire to make Turkey into a nuclear power, but not the capacity,” and that the “pro–government media often exaggerate the strength of the military to increase morale in Turkey”.*

Mark Hibbs’s excellent article is also highly sceptical about this sort of evidence and the evolution of a Turkish nuclear program. Hibbs cited a deficit of necessary technology as well as the safeguards put in place by the IAEA, which has found no evidence of clandestine or undeclared nuclear activities during its reporting processes.

But while Hibbs’s points are strongly made, his analysis predated Trump’s election. The contrast between the international political climate of 2015 and the present is hard to understate.

In 2018, NATO looks fractured and the Western normative order is potentially in decline. Russia is revitalised and assertive. In the nuclear domain, Iran appears to have engaged with the P5+1 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action only to be punished, while serial offender Kim has been rewarded for his determined push towards proliferation.

In this context, the proliferation threshold has been lowered and the oft-discussed nuclear “domino effect” becomes more likely. The most widely discussed possibility is a single Middle Eastern state proliferating, and others quickly following, the most likely candidates being Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Turkey.

The internal characteristics of the Turkish state are also more conducive to proliferation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can effectively rule by decree under new powers granted after the 2017 referendum and his 2018 re-election. Importantly, the 2016 coup attempt allowed him to purge the military and defence establishment of dissenting actors who could push back against dramatic strategic changes.

When combined, the new highly centralised authoritarian system, future access to a nuclear fuel cycle, large investment in delivery mechanisms, and an international system where proliferation is rewarded make Turkey’s emergence as a nuclear state much more likely than in the past. Given international security is largely a game of deterrents, it is hard to picture a strategic environment where Turkey is not considering or planning the ability to proliferate in the near future if required.


* The source and description of these statements have been updated subsequent to publication.

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