The recently concluded P5+1 negotiations with Iran about the status of its nuclear program have raised concerns that rival regional powers may choose to pursue an independent nuclear weapons capability. Neighboring Turkey is often listed as a potential proliferator, owing to its historic concerns about Iranian empowerment, and its on-going proxy war with the Islamic Republic in neighboring Syria. Turkey’s recent efforts to develop nuclear energy thus seem to some to be Ankara’s first step toward securing the option of developing a nuclear weapon.
At a superficial geopolitical level, and with some deep history in ancillary support, this interpretation is logical. But it is wrong.
While Turkish-Iranian tensions have spiked in recent months, Ankara’s nuclear weapons policy—and support for nonproliferation—has remained remarkably consistent since it was first articulated in 1959 under a government still beholden to a staunchly Kemalist military. Turkey’s approach to the Islamic Republic—and to proliferation in the Middle East—has also remained static since the 1980s. Turkey and Iran do compete in the Middle East: Each supports different political proxies in the region, and each is engaged in an indirect proxy war in Syria. Nevertheless, the two sides retain working bilateral relations and have a mutual interest in deepening trade ties.
Furthermore, Turkey under the AKP remains a strong supporter of the international nonproliferation regime and views these multilateral instruments as the best way to ensure that Iran is prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Turkey’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is multifaceted, blending Ankara’s economic interests with its concerns about Iran’s support for non-state actors hostile to Turkish interests. This has resulted in the adoption of a compartmentalized approach. Ankara will not hesitate to use associated political and military proxies to check Iranian power in the region, but will stop short of threatening its economic interests inside the Islamic Republic.
For these reasons, Ankara has championed diplomatic engagement with Iran since 2002, and now views the successful nuclear negotiations with Tehran as validating its preferred approach. Ankara has thus not taken any steps so far that would suggest an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons to balance the Iranian threshold/breakout threat. Turkey remains committed to nonproliferation, has evinced little interest in developing nuclear weapons, and is rather pursuing civil nuclear energy policies first articulated in the 1950s.
After signing and then ratifying the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in the late 1970s, Turkish policymakers have internalized the nonproliferation norm, viewing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a key pillar of its defense policy. Ankara has paired its embrace of nonproliferation with the development and procurement of conventional weapons, designed to defend against—and target—ballistic missiles and sites suspected of producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This policy dates from 1991, after the revelations about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program following the first Gulf War, and has remained in place ever since.
Turkey’s policy is premised on its understanding of the Iranian nuclear threat and its interpretation of international nonproliferation norms. Turkish officials believe that diplomacy can be used to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully and that inspections can prevent Iran from cheating on a nuclear agreement. Ankara has always been skeptical of the efficacy of military action, arguing that the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities would ignite a regional war that would destabilize Turkey, while also pushing Iran to withdraw from the NPT and build a nuclear weapon.
The AKP has indicated that diplomatic engagement strengthens Iran’s “moderates” at the expense of the “hardliners.” Thus, to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute, the international powers needed to make a concerted effort to engage Iranian moderates diplomatically. A strengthened moderate political movement, Ankara has long argued, would be more amenable to making the compromises needed to resolve Iran’s outstanding issues with the IAEA. By contrast, the reliance on coercion would only strengthen the hand of the Iran’s hardliners, who reject compromise and are more amenable to the development of nuclear weapons.
Turkey’s policy is based on three interrelated factors: (1) Turkey is a unique Middle Eastern state owing to its membership in NATO and its hosting of 60–70 U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Force Base; (2) Ankara has an interest in deepening economic cooperation with Iran; (3) Iran and Turkey have an interdependent energy relationship. For these reasons, Ankara has come to rely on the NATO-provided security guarantee to deter regional proliferators, while the security services begin the long process of acquiring conventional weapons designed to give it some protection from ballistic missiles and WMD. At the same time, Turkey has also worked to deepen its trade relationship with Iran and has therefore resisted the implementation of U.S. and EU sanctions.
Despite claims to the contrary, Ankara values its defense relationship with NATO, viewing the arrangement as the critical link to its most important ally: the United States. Nuclear weapons play an important role in Ankara’s approach to NATO and shape its approach to the Iranian nuclear issue. Ankara has hosted American nuclear weapons, deployed under the aegis of the NATO alliance, since 1957. Since then, Turkey has relied on the concept of deterrence, first directed at the Soviet Union, and then the Middle East, for defense.
In 1959, Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu first articulated Turkey’s nuclear weapons policy: the Soviet Union, Zorlu argued, intended to dominate the world, and therefore the relaxation of the arms race would embolden it and could have troubling consequences for the Free World. While Zorlu did not rule out disarmament, he indicated that the process should be based on mutual reductions and transparency on the Soviet side.
This policy has since become Turkey’s de facto approach to arms control, with Ankara championing the step-by-step approach to disarmament as recently as at this year’s NPT Review Conference. For Turkey’s leaders, the maintenance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe is an important component of NATO’s emphasis on burden sharing, owing to the fact that 16 out of 28 member states (including Turkey) participate in the nuclear strike mission. Turkey’s current position on the withdrawal of nuclear weapons is similar to that of Zorlu’s position in 1959: Ankara would not block the removal of these weapons if NATO were to reach a consensus on the issue, but removal should come only after Russia limits its own arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. That is clearly not happening; Russia relies on tactical nuclear weapons to offset NATO’s conventional military superiority, deploying a greater number of weapons than the total number of U.S. gravity bombs in Europe. Russia has shown little willingness to disarm, tying such a policy to conventional weapon limitations and issues of strategic stability.
Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has decreased its reliance on nuclear weapons in favor of the development and procurement of advanced precision strike weapons. In 1995, reportedly for economic reasons, Ankara chose to decertify the pilots it had hitherto relied upon to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons. These trends mirror those of NATO, which has decreased its nuclear readiness considerably since the end of the Cold War.
This means that Ankara hosts American nuclear weapons, has the aircraft needed to deliver them, speaks in favor of maintaining these weapons in Europe, but no longer has pilots certified for the nuclear mission. Ankara has maintained this posture now for twenty years despite the growing threat of regional proliferation in three neighboring states: Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Turkey’s previous approach to these three cases helps shed light on the AKP’s approach to the current Iranian nuclear issue.
Ankara first became concerned with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and WMD during the 1980s, when Iraq turned to these weapons to aid its war with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s subsequent acquisition of ballistic missiles further raised concerns in Ankara, particularly after reports surfaced in the late 1980s that Iran had begun to explore the development of nuclear weapons. During the conflict, however, Ankara chose to remain neutral and resisted U.S.-backed efforts to limit its trade relationship with either country. In doing so, Ankara set a policy precedent that it follows to this day: it resists enforcing even multiple and coordinated unilateral sanctions, especially when deemed detrimental to Turkish economic interests, and will only enforce sanctions after a UN endorsement.
Nonetheless, Ankara borders three states that are known to have pursued weapons of mass destruction. During the 1980s, Iraq used chemical weapons and had a relatively well-developed nuclear weapons program. During that same period, Syria amassed a large chemical arsenal and was cooperating with North Korea on the construction of plutonium production reactor. Finally, Iran began its nuclear weapons program in 1985, long before the bulk of its undeclared nuclear facilities were revealed in August 2002.
In the case of Iraq, Turkey supported the international efforts to draft a more robust inspection regime, designed to prevent the clandestine building of nuclear weapons-related facilities. This voluntary inspection regime, since dubbed the Additional Protocol, is intended to give the IAEA more tools to prevent the clandestine development of undeclared nuclear facilities.
For these reasons, Turkey supports the robust inspection provisions included in the July 14 Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA). In addition to Iran’s voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol (and the expectation that the Iranian Parliament will formally ratify the AP once the agreement is implemented), the JCPOA includes strengthened inspection provisions in excess of the AP, including: limits on Iran’s centrifuge numbers for ten years, the extension of some of the limitations on Iran’s overall separation work units (SWU) total for 15 years, and the monitoring of the infrastructure needed to support the front end of the fuel cycle for 25 years. These provisions mean that Iran will be subjected to extraordinary inspections for 25 years, before giving way to the enforcement of the Turkish-backed Additional Protocol in or before 2040.
The JCPOA also envisions the removal of economic sanctions, which would help to strengthen Turkey’s trade ties with the Islamic Republic. Turkey currently imports 20 percent of its natural gas from Iran, which accounts for 90 percent of the Islamic Republic’s gas exports. U.S. and European Union sanctions forced Turkey to decrease its energy imports from Iran and surreptitiously pay for Iranian energy with Turkish Lira through a state bank, which Tehran then used to purchase gold, which was then shipped to Iran. This arrangement ran afoul of U.S. sanctions, but Ankara has nevertheless continued to pay for Iranian natural gas with gold exports currently routed through Switzerland. Turkey would favor an agreement that would allow for overt payment for Iranian gas. This would help to decrease the cost of doing business and to ease the American pressure on Ankara to further curtail its business dealings with Iran.
The sanctions have also hurt other areas of the Turkish economy. In Turkey’s lucrative textile industry, many producers were forced to dissolve trade ties with Iranian businesses after the post-2012 EU sanctions led to the depreciation of the Iranian Rial and banks could no longer process Iranian wire transfers. These small businesses are an important part of the AKP’s electoral base and—up until the recent depreciation in the Turkish Lira—had supported the party for its deft handling of Turkey’s economy. Thus, the expected end of financial sanctions will strengthen this key sector of the Turkish economy.
These shared economic interests are independent of the proxy war that Iran and Turkey have been fighting in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian crisis, Iran and Turkey shared the same goal: to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. The AKP had invested much political capital in tightening ties with Syria and had come to view Assad as an important AKP ally, not least because the Syrian regime helped it check the power of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Syrian connection also seemed to support Ankara’s overarching ambition to influence the Middle Eastern states bordering the Mediterranean. Lastly, Syria afforded a vital route for overland trade to Gulf Arab markets, which Ankara was loath to lose.
Iran, in contrast, views Syria as its entry point to the Levant, and the principle means by which it supplies its most potent proxy: Lebanese Hizballah. These two actors, in turn, are important cogs in Iran’s so-called alliance of resistance against American, Gulf Arab, and Israeli interests in the region. For much of the AKP’s time in office, Ankara favored engaging with these actors to help diffuse regional tensions and, eventually, try to de-radicalize the regional political agenda. This policy began to break down in 2010 after events in Iraq empowered Iranian-backed political actors at the expense of those allied with Turkey. Then, in September 2011, Turkey broke with the Assad regime and almost immediately thereafter began to support the rebels fighting to unseat him. This placed Turkey at odds with the Islamic Republic; since then a proxy war has developed, pitting the two sides against one another in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.
Despite these tensions, Ankara’s approach to Iran’s support for proxy groups in the region differs from that of many of the Sunni-majority Arab states. Unlike Saudi Arabia, for example, the AKP accepts that Iran has a place in the regional order. Turkey also accepts that Iran is the dominant power in the southern Shi’a majority area of Iraq. However, the AKP believes that Turkey’s zone of influence in the northern Sunni and Kurdish areas should be respected. Hence, after the rise of the Islamic State, Ankara has argued against the further empowerment of Iranian-backed Shi’a militias playing a large role in the northern parts of the country, and instead has sought to further empower Sunni actors that cooperate with Ankara. The conflict in Iraq mirrors that of Syria, where Ankara’s support for Islamist rebels—including al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra—have battled the Iranian-backed Syrian Army and Hizballah.
These dynamics, in turn, suggest that Iran and Turkey have adopted a strategic working relationship that aims to deepen trade ties, while at the sub-state level the regional powers will use allied militias to check each other’s regional ambitions. This portends continued instability and foreign policies that do not interact with countries as sovereign entities, but instead work with allied militias that operate more or less outside of state control.
This suggests two things for the overarching nuclear issue: (1) Iranian-Turkish disputes reside at the sub-strategic level; (2) at the state-to-state level the two sides retain a mutual incentive to deepen economic ties and maintain working relations. These tensions—and overlapping interests—have little to do with Turkey’s approach to nuclear energy. In both cases, Ankara relies heavily on NATO/U.S.-provided deterrence to de-escalate tension and, during times of crises, counts on the alliance to forward-deploy assets to protect Turkish territory.
This security policy is completely independent of Turkey’s civil nuclear energy plan. As with the case of Turkey’s approach to nuclear weapons, the current nuclear energy policy has not changed since it was first implemented—and thus Turkey’s recent nuclear energy ambitions are unrelated to Iran’s development of enrichment technologies during the 2000s.
In as early as 1954, Turkish policymakers expressed an interest in developing commercial nuclear power reactors with American assistance. Turkey first developed its nuclear energy plan in 1965, but the nuclear bureaucracy failed to win government approval for it at that time. This plan was eventually implemented in 1973, after the dramatic rise in global energy prices severely affected the Turkish economy.
However, by 1977 Turkish officials had adopted a unique financing model: The government required that the nuclear vendor provide 100 percent of the financing needed to build the nuclear reactor. In 1983, this vendor-financing provision was expanded upon and signed into law. Dubbed Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT), the law required that the vendor provide all of the financing needed for construction, operate the plant for 15 years, and then transfer the facility to a local partner company.
This financing requirement proved controversial and prevented any nuclear vendor from securing the required construction loans—and thus prevented Ankara from finalizing a contract with any major nuclear vendor. Turkey eventually altered the BOT model in the late 1990s, with the new provision using the same basic financing model, albeit with the vendor operating the plant in perpetuity. This model, dubbed Build, Operate, Own (BOO), has since been a key component of Ankara’s nuclear tenders, with the AKP using it to finance its two different reactor projects in Mersin and Sinop. This means that Turkey’s future nuclear power plants will be foreign owned, operated, and maintained. Thus, if Ankara were to decide to use these reactors to proliferate, it would first have to kick out the foreign operator and then separate the foreign-owned spent fuel stored on site, before fashioning a crude implosion bomb. This is simply not feasible.
Furthermore, Turkey has had a small nuclear research program since 1957. If Ankara had any desire to develop a nuclear weapon clandestinely, it would make far more sense to cull scientists from its own indigenous program, rather than from those working should-to-shoulder with foreigners at large reactor sites. There is no evidence to suggest that Ankara has ever seriously entertained such an idea. The risks are enormous: If Ankara were caught, it would lose its relationship with the United States, anger its neighbors, and cripple its economy. Ankara therefore has a huge incentive to remain non-nuclear and to continue to focus on maintaining its security relationship with the United States and pursuing a civil nuclear energy program.
This is especially true now that Washington and Ankara’s approaches to the Iranian nuclear issue have more or less aligned. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Israel, Turkey has much to gain from the easing of Iran-related economic sanctions. Furthermore, the P5+1’s current approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is similar in style to that of Ankara’s previous emphasis on diplomacy. Turkey ultimately stands to benefit from Iran’s reintegration in the world economy.
For strategic reasons, then, Turkey supports the final agreement and has taken no steps to acquire an independent nuclear infrastructure, let along a weapons capability. However, on the sub-strategic level, Ankara will continue to work to limit Iranian influence in areas deemed to fall under Turkey’s sphere of influence. Thus, for the foreseeable future, Iran and Turkey are bound to pursue a compartmentalized relationship wherein conflicts play out through proxies, while more robust economic ties are pursued. This policy is a continuation of the status quo through the advent of other means, and sometimes the same means. Turkey will therefore continue to rely on NATO and the United States for security, while it pursues its own independent capabilities. This rules out a clandestine nuclear weapons program.