This article was published in Arab News on September 15, 2019.
Many obstacles in Erdogan’s path to a nuclear weapon
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this month shared with the media his intention to acquire nuclear warheads. He said this in a forum that had little to do with nuclear weapons. He was addressing a group of businessmen in the eastern province of Sivas and was praising the progress Turkey had made in meeting its own defense requirements. All of a sudden, he went off script and said: “It is fine and well, yet some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads. Not one or two. But I do not have missiles with nuclear warheads. This I cannot accept.”
A Turkish aspiration to acquire nuclear capability is not new. President Kenan Evren was known to nourish the idea of cooperating with Pakistan in the field of nuclear technology in the 1980s. His close friendship with then-Pakistan President Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq may have encouraged him to acquire this technology, but he never raised it publicly.
Four-star general Hilmi Ozkok, the former chief of the general staff of the Turkish military, indirectly touched upon this subject in his farewell address in 2006. But this was in the context of growing eagerness in Middle Eastern countries for the acquisition of nuclear technology, especially by Iran and — as a reaction to this — Saudi Arabia. In light of this competition, he felt Turkey could face a difficult choice between acquiring nuclear technology or losing its strategic advantage in the region.
However, this subject has never been addressed in such a straightforward manner as Erdogan did. We may presume that he did not know all the implications of such a statement. He may not know that Turkey is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Furthermore, Turkey has forsworn, under the NPT, the pursuit of such weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency is tasked by the NPT to ensure that nuclear materials are not being diverted for weapons purposes.
The NPT has been signed by 191 states and Turkey became party to it in 1979. Only five countries are not party to it. Among these, North Korea was a signatory but withdrew in 2003. India and Pakistan were opposed to the idea of a limited number of countries monopolizing nuclear technology while depriving others of the possibility of acquiring it. Israel neither admits nor denies that it has nuclear weapons, while South Sudan has not yet joined the treaty since it became independent.
Turkey is a member of many other international agreements in this field, including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty of 1996 and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. The latter only allows underground nuclear tests by nuclear states. There is also the Wassenaar Arrangement of 1996, which controls the export of dual-use equipment and technologies and of which Turkey is a founding member; the Missile Technology Control Regime that Turkey joined in 1997 and aims to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles; and the Hague Code of Conduct against ballistic missile proliferation of 2002.
We may presume that Erdogan did not know all the implications of such a statement on nuclear warheads.
If Turkey is determined to acquire nuclear warheads, it would first have to withdraw from all these international instruments. If it acquires nuclear warheads without withdrawing from them, it will face sanctions.
Then there would be a catalogue of other issues. First is that Turkey’s withdrawal from such international treaties would not entitle it to automatically acquire nuclear warheads. It is not certain that the nuclear states would be prepared to supply them to Ankara.
Second, even if Turkey manages to acquire nuclear warheads or the technology, it may then face sanctions, like North Korea and Iran have. Third is the question of a delivery system, which Turkey does not yet possess. It would take time and resources to develop one or find a country that would be prepared to supply one. Fourth, does Turkey perceive a threat that would justify the acquisition of nuclear warheads, or is it an illusion?
Every sovereign country is entitled to withdraw from the international agreements it has signed up to and draw up its defense planning as it wishes. Therefore, Erdogan’s move should not be seen as a surprise, especially when a country like the US can withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But such moves have consequences.
It is still unclear whether the establishment in Turkey will follow Erdogan’s abrupt move. The Turkish Foreign Ministry still maintains on its website an earlier text referring to “its adherence to relevant international instruments (on nuclear issues) and their full implementation.” But, in the long term, Erdogan’s idea may gain traction with the public.
Irrespective of the final outcome, these issues deserve more serious consideration before a statement is made.