In the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test, I thought it prudent to re-evaluate Turkey’s nonproliferation policies. While Turkish foreign policy remains largely focused on its immediate periphery, the DPRK’s nuclear test is likely to harden Ankara’s commitment to global nonproliferation norms and, within the context of the NATO Alliance, nuclear deterrence. (As a side note, it is important to remember that Turkey emphasizes nonproliferation, not disarmament.)
After the end of the Cold War, Turkey became acutely aware of the threats posed by the spread of WMD technologies and SCUD ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Rather than seek out its own nuclear arsenal, Ankara supported the international efforts to tighten global nonproliferation norms. In tandem, Turkish defense officials were eager to retain NATO’s forward presence of nuclear weapons, arguing that they were critical for deterring Iraq, Iran, and Syria. This policy, despite the change in Turkish leadership, remains in place today.
However, the AK Party has abandoned Turkey’s previous policy of “not-really-commenting” on the negotiations for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MEWMDFZ), in favor of full-throated support for the Egyptian led efforts (For reference, this pre-dates the Morsi era). Nevertheless, Turkey remains committed to maintaining its ability to deliver the ~65 NATO tactical nuclear weapons currently stationed at Incirlik air base. Thus, as is the case with most things in Turkey, it is important to separate the rhetoric from the actual policy that is implemented.
Turkey, however, has never shown any inclination to develop its own nuclear weapons. While some ultra-nationalist voices continue to espouse the desire for Turkey to “develop its own atomic bomb”, Ankara’s nuclear history shows no evidence of a governmental decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Thus, the 2006 decision to launch a nuclear tender, which many attribute to the external pressures of Iran’s decision to end its negotiations with the EU-3, is incorrect. Turkey’s nuclear program dates back to 1955 (Ankara was the first country to conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States under the Atoms for Peace policy) and has focused on developing power reactors since the 1960s.
The program accelerated after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which in turn led to an OPEC oil embargo and a spike in oil prices. Turkey, a net-oil importer, suffered tremendously (By some estimates, its foreign currency reserves were nearly exhausted). The government, therefore, began to focus on energy efficiency and non-fossil fuel based energy production – i.e. – nuclear and hydro. This in turn touched off an effort to negotiate a turnkey deal with a Swedish consortium. The deal fell through after the 1980 military coup (Sweden did not want to finance the construction of a reactor in a country controlled by the military).
After the coup, Turkey’s negotiations with nuclear suppliers have been derailed by the 1984 Turkish law that incentivizes build-operate-transfer contracts for power plant construction. (For reference, the law has since been updated, but the emphasis on build-operate-own – which is in fact de-facto state policy – has prevented progress with all potential suppliers except for Russia). Turkey, therefore, treats nuclear power just like it treats other power plants. Thus, its pursuit of a nuclear power reactor differs very little from the deals that the government has struck for the foreign construction of coal and natural gas plants. The BOT/BOO policy is driven by the need for foreign investment in Turkey’s underdeveloped energy sector. Turkey, however, has sought to build-up its electrical infrastructure without having to spend massive amounts of capital, which in turn would drive up the country’s current account deficit (CAD) – the achilles heel of the Turkish economy. This suggests that Ankara is not hell bent on acquiring a reactor at any price, but is instead keen on using nuclear energy to: 1) drive down the country’s reliance on fossil fuels (the biggest driver of the CAD), 2) generate more electricity, 3) generate foreign investment. (Nuclear weapons, as you probably noticed, are not on the list.)
As for Turkey’s nonproliferation policies, the DPRK’s test is sure to be a source of concern in Ankara. As I mentioned earlier, Ankara’s response to the proliferation of WMD and ballistic missiles was to advocate for tougher international nonproliferation policies. Thus, any erosion of nonproliferation norms is sure to be a source of concern. Turkey, however, has few policy tools at its disposal to effect change. While Ankara did seek to try and facilitate an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 between 2009 and 2010, Turkish – Iranian relations have since soured. Moreover, Ankara is keen to avoid further entangling itself in politically risky issues, while the AK Party works to pass a new constitution.
Thus, Turkey is likely to remain inward looking and focused on resolving domestic issues in the medium-term. The farthest Ankara will likely go is to continue to advocate for the holding of a conference aimed at spurring negotiations for a MEWMDFZ. While doing so, Turkey will continue its decades old support for NATO nuclear deterrence. Thus, the rhetorical policy will be a MEWMDFZ, but, in reality, the actual policy will be to make preparations to live in a world with nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.