Struggle for Regional Leadership Gradually Comes to Nuclear Issue

By Arthur Dunn

Most citizens of Turkey vote for the possessing independent nuclearweapon in case of possible nuclear threat from Iran.

This is proven by the results of a public opinion poll, held by the Center for Economy and Foreign Policy Study located in Istanbul.

According to 53,9% of respondents, own nuclear bomb shall be more efficient defense from Iranian nuclear threat, than aid of NATO member-states.

At the same time 35% of respondents consider that by no means the country should obtain its own nuclear weapon.

Only 8% are convinced that membership in NATO creates pretty firm guarantees for security. The poll covered 1,5 thousand citizens of Turkey above 18 years old from various provinces.

In 2009, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to the US presidents, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “If Iran is allowed to go forward, in self-defense or for a variety of reasons we could have half a dozen countries in the region doing the same thing just in case.”

Indeed, there is strong suspicion that Islamic Republic of Iran actively tries to get the own bomb. From the point of view of nuclear nonproliferation this attempt causes the most anxiety. Experts are concerned that the fight for regional leadership between leading players in the Middle East can move over to nuclear sphere and arms race may start there, and Turkey is called among its possible participants. Thus, during the 2010 visit of the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to China the British press wrote that Ankara was interested in acquisition of the own nuclear weapons.

These developments can obviously bring to drastic changes in one of the most explosive regions of the planet. Therefore it seems to be expedient to consider such a perspective in more detail.

Turkey is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and signed on to the Additional Protocol in 2006. Turkish governments have consistently denied that they would even consider reneging on their NPT commitment and developing own arsenal. A poll conducted in December 2008 revealed that in Turkey, 55 percent of the population was strongly for eliminating nuclear weapons and another 10 percent somewhat in favor of this proposition.

In recent years, Ankara has been advocating the implementation of a regional nuclear weapons free zone, which officials see as part of an overall strategy to decrease tensions in the region.

At the same time, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and US ally, Turkey is enjoying the protection extended by US nuclear guarantees – the so-called “nuclear umbrella.” Along with four other European countries, it maintains US tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) – 90 tactical bombs that are stored at the Incirlik Air Force base near the southern city of Adana. It was actively involved in the drafting of the Alliance’s recent Strategic Concept, which stated: “Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

As for the atomic power engineering, Turkey does not have any nuclear reactors, only one research and two small experimental nuclear facilities. Beginning in 2006, Turkey was among the thirteen countries in the Middle East that announced intentions to begin developing a new or long-dormant nuclear energy program. In order to reduce its dependence on imported hydrocarbons and to satisfy growing energy demands as well as potential unreliability of its energy partners, including Iraq, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, the government invited tenders for building nuclear power plants. It is determined to provide some 10 percent of its electricity needs from nuclear facilities as of 2030.

In August 2009 Ankara and Moscow reopened talks on civilian nuclear cooperation, and next year have signed an intergovernmental agreement for a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned atomic power company Rosatom to build, own, and operate a power plant at the Akkuyu site, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, comprising four VVER-1200s light-water reactor units.

The problem is that technologies to develop nuclear power are dual purpose, being also used for the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

It looks quite probable that the Saudis, who feel the most threatened by Tehran’s ambitions, are likely to try to follow Iran if it develops nuclear weapons. Riyadh has already intimated that in this case it would seek its own warheads. Moreover it can encourage Turkey to seek its own path to nuclear weaponry.

An Iranian bomb may compel Israel to come out of its nuclear closet. Remind that still in 2006 today’s Turkish president and then foreign and deputy prime minister, Abdulah Gül argued that if Iranian nuclear weapons are dangerous, then so are the Israeli ones. And since then Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated radically, following the January 2009 Gaza operation and and especially incident aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010.

Furthermore, despite its boisterous denunciations of the Israeli nuclear program, Egypt has put its nuclear ambitions on a backburner as long as Israel maintains its ambiguous stand about its program. If Israel were to go public with its arsenal in response to an Iranian bomb, it would risk reigniting Egypt’s nuclear effort.

Turkey and Iran are two powers with claims for leadership in the Middle East. If they have not fought much between them, it is because neither can decisively defeat the other. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will surely alter this deterrent balance. Already, by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime and bringing to power a Sh’ia regime in Baghdad, the war in Iraq has drastically improved Iran’s geopolitical standing in the region. Because Iran is a revisionist power, some Turks fear that its acquisition of nuclear weapons would be likely to make it far more self-confident and, therefore, adventurous in its regional relations.

Nevertheless it is difficult to predict Ankara’s actions should Tehran in the long run all the same acquires nuclear weapons, first of all, since there is a lack of coherently articulated national policy concerning the matter. It is the result of the unclear demarcation of lines of authority between civilian and military leaders on issues of national defense.

Turkish militaries have been blunt about their concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The Turkish General Staff perceives Iran as an ideological enemy; a theocratic state bent on undermining the secular basis of Turkey and of the region. For example, former chief of staff, General Hilmi Özkök warned that unless the crisis over nuclear weapons is not resolved diplomatically, Turkey would soon be faced with important strategic choices. Otherwise, it would be faced with the possibility of losing strategic superiority in the region. Two former Commanders of the Turkish Air Force argued that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, Turkey should do the same so as to be able to preserve the balance of power between the two countries and also in the region. Although these views were not endorsed by Turkey’s government, they reflect the state of national security debate.

But the advent of an Iranian nuclear device would not automatically change Turkey’s approach to nuclear weapons because there is a division between the government and the security establishment regarding Iranian intentions. The authorities and most of the Turkish public do not perceive the Iranian nuclear program as a serious threat. In the long term, the erosion of the military’s influence over national security policy could increase further.

In addition, the bilateral relations are enjoying their best period since 1979. In contrast to Turkey’s previous Iran policy, the ruling Justice and Development Party has publicly embraced the Islamic Republic and has sought ways to increase diplomatic and economic cooperation. Between 1991 and 2011, Turkey’s exports to Iran increased from $87 million to $3.2 billion; its imports from Iran increased from $91 million to $11.6 billion during the same time period due to Turkey’s growing demand for Iranian natural gas.

While insisting on the need for Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and to ensure the transparency of its nuclear activities, Erdogan has supported Tehran’s controversial enrichment and nuclear program as well as criticized the threats being directed against Iran. Correspondingly, both the government and public are completely opposed to any strike on Iranian nuclear installations.

So, though the possession of nuclear weapons by other states is a factor that, indirectly at least, reduces Turkish regional (if not global) aspirations and power, the current government remains seems to be ambivalent on its own plans regarding nuclear energy and weapons development.

Of course, the decision to pursue nuclear weapons is rooted in technical capability combined with decision maker intent. Generally speaking, were Iran to cross the nuclear threshold, Turkey has three choices:

1. Strengthening ties with the US and Alliance in order to improve own deterrent capacities. It might look for reinforcing these ties, seeking extra diplomatic and political assurances and asking for more advanced weaponry, including state-of-the-art anti-missile technology and advanced aircraft. It might also appeal to the EU to strengthen its defense-related institutions and even speed up the accession negotiations.

One step in this direction is made already: Turkey has agreed to deploy parts of the US anti-missile shield that could be used against Iran, a point that has generated friction in the past with its neighbor.

2. Regional diplomatic offense. Since Turkish ruling party has a great deal of confidence in its own standing in the region, it may choose to pursue an active diplomatic route designed to isolate Iran. The desired goal of isolating it would be to help trigger a change in regime or orientation that would reverse the nuclear decision.

3. Going nuclear option. It cannot be achieved quickly because Turkey is not able technically to produce nuclear weapons soon. It does not have the necessary equipment to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, nor does it have the relevant infrastructure to mine uranium, enrich uranium, or reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Therefore the country could not indigenously manufacture the fissile core for a nuclear weapon. It is also unlikely that reprocessing capabilities can be quickly or easily acquired because the supplier states have tightened export restrictions and have only transferred a small amount of equipment in recent years. In particular, the aforementioned VVER-1200s reactors are not well suited for the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

However, Turkey has refused to rule out acquiring the technology in the future. The designs for first-generation nuclear weapons are widely understood and it is likely that Turkish physicists would be technically capable of fashioning first-generation nuclear weapons if the leadership were order to do it. So, despite a realization of the necessary investments would take time and resources, taking such a decision cannot be excluded.

The possibility of pursuing this option clandestinely is limited because of the close relationships that Turkey has developed with the United States and Europe over the years, making the country fairly transparent. An open nuclear endeavor would risk alienating the Europeans and Americans, but a covert program would do so even more. For example, still during the Reagan Administration, Americans were very concerned about the existence of a nuclear supply relationship between Pakistan and Turkey. They warned the Turks in a number of different settings about this relationship until means for greater cooperation between the two countries were instituted.

It is to be added that in recent years the Turkey’s interpretation of the NPT Article IV has been a source of friction with some of its Western allies, especially when it comes to international efforts to limit nuclear-aspirant countries from accessing enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Turkish officials view these efforts as a threat to Turkey’s nuclear ambitions and have challenged proposals designed to make it harder for a state to access nuclear technologies.

Last but not least, the existing plans of recreating a new Ottoman Empire are to be taken into account. Turkey is experiencing now a wave of nationalism and prickliness, the public has become more xenophobic. The call for Turkey to be an unrivalled power in the region and beyond is often heard. An Iranian bomb is likely to galvanize and mobilize those who would like to see Turkey go nuclear. In the result Prime Minister Erdogan is consistently pursuing policy aimed at rise of Turkish nationalism, and nukes can become an important part of this concept.

Growing influence of Ankara in international affairs calls more increased attention of NATO allies as well as of states adjoining Turkey, which are potential threat for serious conflicts initiating.

Thus, for example, the probability of conflict between Turkey with Israel at the moment is not high, despite aggressive statements of Turkish authorities. The ground of Turkish armed forced – land troops, and due to absence of common border a wide-scale conflict is unlikely to happen. In addition Turkey is united with Israel with common economic interests. The most probable scenario is armed interference of Turkey into the struggle of Syria opposition with Asad regime. Invasion of Turkish troops in North of Syria or any other form of aggression (for example, air attacks) shall mean the first step on the way of military operation against Iran. The probability of armed conflict with Iran in a short-term prospect can be evaluated as low. However, allocation of anti-missile defense radar within the territory of Turley and hypothetical plans of attacking Iran within medium-term prospect (by the end of 2012) shall increase the probability of armed conflict with participation of Turkish army.

Relations of Turkey with Russia shall remain stable and grounding on commercial benefit within short-term prospect. Within medium-long term prospect the probability of conflict with Russia, also including armed one, shall increase gradually. Possible reasons for the conflict can the issue of the status of the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, fighting for influence in the regions – Caucasus, Balkans,  Black Sea.

Experts note that the fight for regional leadership between big players of Near East region gradually gets into nuclear sphere. In Near East they form a new system of collective security, in the frameworks of which Turkey has a special place. At the moment, Ankara doesn’t observe nuclear weapon as the mean to expand its influence in the region and urgent condition of regional leadership, however, it doesn’t deny the emergence of such need in future, and judging by all, it has already today started some preparations.

It is hard to imagine a scenario according to which Turkey would simply cast aside its policy in favor of an independent weapons capability. Interoperability with NATO forces remains the key component of Turkey’s defense policy and it is not very likely that Ankara would threaten its union with the most important allies, at least in the middle-term future.

Turkish authorities understand perfectly well that voluntarily damage its relations with key allies will seriously complicate its international standing. For now Turkey’s commitments to the EU and NATO and the long and costly gestation period necessary to develop nuclear technologies and related weapons, urge the country on a disarmament agreement. And refusal from it will necessarily jeopardize relations with the United States and have a negative impact on its NATO links.

On another hand, a nuclear arms race in the region, in which Turkey will remain on the sidelines, lose influence, and rely upon American security guarantees, raises the prospect of a strong nationalist backlash. If this were coupled with disappointment over the prospects for membership in the European Union, the government can be inclined to nuclearization.

Under these circumstances it is rather difficult to answer definitely the question concerning Ankara’s nuclear ambitions but likelihood that Turkey would seek its own path to a nuclear capability, however long this might take, seems to be increasing.

The Administration of the President of the USA has worked out a new nuclear doctrine, which anticipates limitation of implementation of this kind of mass destruction weapons. According to well-informed and influencing British paper “The Times”, approved by Barak Obama concept forced him seriously to think over the need to withdraw American nuclear weapon from the territory of Turkey.

According to the amended doctrine, the White House shall be in right to sanction a nuclear attack in case, if the United States were attacked or the implementation of a nuclear bomb is the only way to prevent the use of such weapon against America. This wording excludes involvement of nuclear weapon in reply for the attack with ordinary, chemical or biological weapon. Former doctrine, adopted yet during the first term of the rule of George Bush-junior, allowed ambiguous interpretation.

Limitation of the use of nuclear weapon makes senseless such quantity of nuclear warheads outside the USA. Modern carriers allow transporting weapon to the target in minutes, and there is no need to keep bombs in direct approach from potential trouble spots. By this we’ll note the fact of presence of American bombs in pretty unpredictable regions is already a factor aggravating tension. This all concerns Turkey to the full.