Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been no stranger to controversial statements, yet in his latest speech on September 4, he dropped a bombshell when he said it was “unacceptable” that nuclear powers tell him that Turkey is not allowed to have nuclear weapons. Addressing members of his ruling party (AKP) in the eastern city of Sivas, the President said “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But (they tell us) we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.”
Erdogan’s ambiguous message has created confusion among pundits about what he meant and what was his intention, thus allowing for a wide range of speculation.
Erdogan’s ambiguous message has created confusion among pundits about what he meant and what was his intention, thus allowing for a wide range of speculation. Basically, two main interpretations emerged. The first is that the President’s statement was misread. While he did say that it was unacceptable for nuclear-armed states to forbid Ankara from obtaining nuclear weapons, he did not specify whether Turkey had plans to obtain them or is actively pursuing them. His goal was not to signal his country’s intention to develop a nuclear arsenal but rather to protest against the double standards of the great powers.
In this sense, he was actually criticizing the existing nuclear regimes and rules imposed by the states with nukes on other states, affirming at the same time that such behavior is unacceptable and certainly should not be accepted by Turkey.
Such interpretation is not only in line with the President’s previous statements, but it also reflects a general perception in Turkey regarding two main issues. The first is Turkey’s status as a rising international power and how it should be perceived and treated by other great powers on the world stage. The second is the dissatisfaction with the way the international system is being exclusively run by the major five big powers in the world.
At every possible opportunity, Erdogan reminds the international community of his famous motto “the world is bigger than five.” And since the 74th session of the UN General Assembly will open on September 17, his statement can be seen as a prelude to what he would say in the General Assembly. Taking all this into consideration, Erdogan’s statement makes perfect sense. He is accustomed to reminding the domestic audience and those who follow Turkey from abroad that his country should be treated by the major powers as an equal.
The second interpretation, however, suggests that Erdogan’s statement on September 4, is a source of serious concern because it reflected a fundamental departure from Turkey’s long known position on nuclear weapons and nuclear regimes. For those who agree with such an assumption, there is no doubt in their minds that the Turkish President signaled his desire to acquire nuclear missiles in that statement. Such interpretation might seem in line with the personal ambitions of the Turkish president. In the last two years, there have been claims that Erdogan is personally seeking nuclear weapons. Some went even further to claim—albeit without any evidence—that Ankara has “secret plans” to acquire the ultimate weapon.
Turkey has neither the sufficient know-how nor the necessary and appropriate infrastructure to possess nuclear weapons.
Based on the facts, there is no evidence to support such a claim. On the contrary, several factors can challenge it. Turkey has neither the sufficient know-how nor the necessary and appropriate infrastructure to possess nuclear weapons. More importantly, Ankara does not have the necessary funds to bankroll such an expensive project. In fact, Turkey’s current economic situation and the state of imbalance in its foreign relations with the major powers put it at odds with such an assumption.
Even if we assumed that Ankara has what it takes to obtain nuclear weapons, it will have to get past tremendous difficulties and troubles before reaching this goal. After all, there are fundamental reasons why Turkey has not “gone nuclear” till now. They include its commitment to the nuclear nonproliferation regime and its membership in the NATO alliance which allowed it to benefit from the US extended nuclear deterrence.
In this context, Ankara is a signatory of both the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CNTB). While the ultimate goal of the first is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and their technology, while allowing signatory states to benefit from the cooperation in the field of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the CNTB treaty bans all nuclear explosions, for both civilian and military purposes. Turkey has long adhered to the related relevant international arms control conventions. It has also contributed to their effective implementation. There is nothing that would suggest that Ankara is changing this policy or will change it at least for the foreseeable future.
Turkey’s NATO membership allowed Ankara to be a part of a small number of countries to host and deploy US nuclear weapons on its soil… This provided Turkey with the deterrence it needs without running into the trouble of having to develop a military nuclear program of its own.
Furthermore, Turkey’s NATO membership allowed Ankara to be a part of a small number of countries to host and deploy US nuclear weapons on its soil under NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing. This provided Turkey with the deterrence it needs without running into the trouble of having to develop a military nuclear program of its own.
In the last decade or so, Turkey came to realize the importance of utilizing peaceful nuclear energy. Its demand for electricity has been rapidly growing by about 5.5% a year while its energy use is expected to surge by 50% over the next ten years. Unlike oil-rich countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey has no significant resources of oil and gas. As a result, the country pays around $43 billion annually on energy imports, according to 2018 figures.
Despite its attempt to diversify its energy imports, Ankara is traditionally dependent on both Russia and Iran. This situation hinders the energy security of the country and constrains its political preferences especially in times of conflict.
To address these issues, Turkey is currently working on realizing the Akkuyu nuclear power plant with the help of Russia. The plant is comprised of four units, each of which has a capacity of 1,200 megawatts. The first reactor has an operational date set for 2023, while the other three are expected to be up and running at full capacity by 2025. Together, the units are anticipated to meet around 10% of Turkey’s electricity needs.
Turkey is certainly interested in nuclear energy—if not nuclear weapons—to meet its increasing demand for electricity and diversify its energy imports.
Turkey is certainly interested in nuclear energy—if not nuclear weapons—to meet its increasing demand for electricity and diversify its energy imports. Thus, it has a strong incentive to pursue a peaceful nuclear program rather than a military one.
Acknowledging these points, one can still argue that, in the future, Turkey’s motives might change due to the changing nature of the regional and international landscape and the rules governing the cooperation/competition between states. In other words, the possible collapse of the arms control regimes and the nuclear proliferation, might—theoretically at least—compel Ankara to revise its position accordingly.
When it comes to Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, three regional powers are already engaged in the nuclear game in one way or another. Israel is a de facto undeclared nuclear state that has maintained a policy of nuclear ambiguity for the sake of establishing deterrence while avoiding the ramifications of having an open nuclear weapon monopoly in the region.
Iran, an energy-rich theocracy heavily armed to its teeth with a ballistic missile arsenal and a powerful rival of Turkey, is already a nuclear threshold state. And of course, we also have the desert powerhouse Saudi Arabia which is led by a young ambitious Crown Prince and is currently launching its missile and nuclear program to catch up with Iran.
On the international level, the US has recently withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War-era missile treaty with Russia, that might start a new arms race between the world’s top two nuclear powers. This comes amid the deteriorating relations between the US and Turkey fueled by Turkey’s buying Russia’s triumph, the S-400, and the US depriving Ankara of its F-35s and expelling it from the program. Many hawks in the US are demanding the removal of an estimated 50 to 70 B61 tactical US nuclear bombs that are stored in the Incirlik base in southern Turkey. Others have gone even further demanding that Turkey be expelled from NATO.
The fact that their NATO ally, the US, is depriving them from buying the defensive weapons they need to meet Turkey’s national security needs is counterproductive.
For Turkey’s decision-makers, these are all unfavorable developments. To them, the fact that their NATO ally, the US, is depriving them from buying the defensive weapons they need to meet Turkey’s national security needs is counterproductive and will ultimately lead to three things. First, it will promote self-reliance. Second, it will help the indigenous defense industry to grow. And third, it will push the country to look elsewhere for alternatives.
In this context, pulling out US nuclear weapons from Turkey, expelling the country from the NATO alliance, or allowing regional countries to possess nuclear weapons might change the conviction in Ankara about the feasibility of refraining from acquiring nuclear weapons.