Erdogan’s Nuclear Dreams Will Be a Nightmare for Turkish-American Relations

Ömer Taşpınar

AFP Photo: Tobias Schwarz

As if Turkey’s current problems with NATO – sparked by its purchase of a Russian missile-defense system – were not troubling enough, now its strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to adopt nuclear weapons. Erdogan made his first public reference to the subject in a speech last month marking the 100th anniversary of Turkey’s War of Independence. After praising the country’s progress in creating a defense industry, he said: “We came a long way. This is great. Yet some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads… I don’t have missiles with nuclear warheads. This, I cannot accept. Almost all developed countries have nuclear capabilities. Look at Israel. Do they have nuclear weapons? They do. They bully other nations by possessing these. No one can touch them.”

And just in case he hadn’t made himself clear, Erdogan brought it up again last week, in New York at the UN General Assembly. In defiance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which Turkey is a party, he said: “The position of nuclear power should either be forbidden to all or permissible for everyone. The nuclear issue is one among many others that create global imbalance and injustice.”

Even by Erdogan’s standards of provocativeness, this was a remarkable departure from the status quo ante. In his earlier, more democratic and more moderate days, he talked about the need to “de-nuclearize” the world. To be sure, this “zero nuclear” position was still tinged with a measure of nationalist and Islamist resentment. Erdogan bridled at Israel’s nuclear status, unhappy that the regional balance of power was tilted in favor of the Jewish state. Equally important, his anti-nuclear stance had a thinly veiled message to Tehran: don’t you go nuke either.

Today, a much more hawkish Erdogan believes it is no longer a question of whether, but of when Turkey will possess nuclear weapons. This is certainly a dangerous development, but it is far from unexpected. With the Trump administration’s decision to abrogate the nuclear deal with Iran, the possibility of a soon-to-be nuclear-capable Iran is rising sharply, and that is an important factor for Turkey. For while Ankara and Tehran are not geopolitical adversaries, per se, the Turkish-Persian rivalry has deep roots and Erdogan is a nationalist who takes the prestige that comes with nuclear status very seriously.

But is Turkey not protected by NATO’s nuclear umbrella already? Turkey, of course, is still a member of NATO. It is also one of the few NATO states to have American tactical nuclear weapons on its soil. According to most estimates, the Turkish air force base of Incirlik is host to approximately 50 B61 thermonuclear gravity bombsunder US command. Yet, the sad reality of Turkish-American relations these days is that a majority of Turks see the United States as their country’s number one national security threat. American military support for Syrian Kurds clearly has turned into a nightmare for this once-strategic partnership. As such, when most Turks believe Washington wants to create an independent Kurdistan, the nuclear umbrella NATO provides for the country becomes meaningless.

Let’s also not forget that distrust of Washington is nothing new. Even during the Cold War, Ankara had doubts about American commitments. The removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the infamous warning by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 that NATO would not come to Turkey’s rescue if its invasion of Cyprus triggered a Soviet reaction, are still fresh in the minds of many Turks. Ankara’s skepticism about American intentions has in fact worsened as the center of gravity of US geopolitical calculations has shifted to the Middle East after the Cold War. Turkey’s unresolved Kurdish problem, coupled with the fact that Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have become some of Washington’s favorite partners, has proved hard for Ankara to comprehend.

Then finally, the failed coup of 2016 further complicated not only bilateral relations but also the nuclear question in a remarkable way. Several F-16s flown by coup supporters took off from the Incirlik air base. This prompted accusations of American complicity. This conspiracy theory gained traction in light of the broader suspicion that the coup was in fact orchestrated from Pennsylvania by the dissident Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gulen. Given such turbulence in Turkish-American relations, it is unsurprising that many in Washington are now questioning the wisdom of keeping nuclear weapons in Turkey. This American debate about finding alternatives to Incirlik is closely followed in Turkey and fuels much indignation.

The crisis between Turkey and the United States over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile-defense system and the subsequent suspension of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet project this year has further clarified for Ankara the problem of relying on NATO and the United States. Erdogan’s recent musing about a nuclear-capable Turkey should be seen in this nationalist context. For now, it is a dream. But if pursued by Ankara, it will turn into another nightmare in Turkey’s relations with the West.

Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.