The HDP and Turkey’s National Election

With the Turkish national election just days away, the future of the country’s political system hinges on Turkey’s fourth largest political party, the HDP. To get a sense of the the party’s electoral chances, and whether the HDP’s efforts to undercut the AKP in Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast are paying off, Aaron speaks with Noah Blaser and Piotr Zalewski about their recent trip to the cities of Urfa, Mardin, Midyat, and Diyarbakir.

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Turkish Elections & Anti-ISIS Strategy

Note: Aaron was the guest on the latest episode of the Middle East Week podcast. Below is that episode, as well as the show notes.

Aaron Stein comes back on the show to discuss Turkey’s upcoming election, their fight against ISIS, and relations with Saudi Arabia. Topics we covered include:

  • An overview of the key political parties and politicians in Turkey
  • Constitutional changes Erdogan and the AKP are pursuing
  • Potential backlash AKP could face for pushing for a presidential system
  • Kurdish politicians’ decision to run as a political party, as opposed to running as individual independent candidates
  • The evolution of how Turkey views the ISIS threat
  • Turkey’s strategy to fight ISIS in Syria
  • Turkey’s lack of influence in Iraq, and how that effects their view of ISIS
  • The rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia


Thanks to patrons Andrew and David de Bruijn. You can support the podcast by making a small donation on Patreon!

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Turkey’s Jihadists

Turkish citizens are playing an active role in the Syria civil war. With as many as 1500 Turks now fighting in Iraq and Syria, numerous Turkish officials are now expressing considerable concern about returning fighters. In today’s podcast, Aaron speaks with northcaucasuscaucus, a blogger and analyst following Turkish and Azeri foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, about the history of the Turkish foreign fighter phenomena dating back to the Afghan Jihad.


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Turkey’s Yemen Policy

Note: This episode was recorded on April 20th

The famous Anatolian folk song, Yemen Turkusu, describes the painful memories of one Ottoman military unit from Mus, after being deployed to battle during World War I. The song’s haunting lyrics capture the difficulties the Ottoman’s faced in Yemen, saying “those who go never return.” Historians describe the Ottoman’s experience in Yemen as tumultuous, frequented by numerous local uprisings, and clashes with a powerful actor in the northern mountains: the Zaydi tribe, or the Houthis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignored history when he committed to supporting the Saudi led mission to rollback the gains of Yemen’s Houthis. Erdogan explicitly linked the Houthis’ rise to Iranian support – and called on the Islamic Republic and associated terror groups to withdraw. The antecedents for Turkey’s Yemen policy began in March during Erdogan’s high-profile visit to the Kingdom to meet with King Salman.

To discuss Turkey’s Yemen policy, Aaron speaks with Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, about Ankara’s approach to the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and why Ankara’s support for the Saudi airstrikes is low-risk and high reward.

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Turkey and the Yemen Coalition: My Brief Thoughts

I have a more comprehensive piece coming out next week on Turkish policy-making vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. Below are my brief thoughts on the topic, including the speculation that Ankara is now part of a “Sunni-Axis” against Iran. I think that analysis is far too simplistic and fails to capture key schisms in the Turkish-Saudi relationship, particularly over Iran.



Turkey has a number of conflicting interests in the Middle East. There is no doubt Ankara has a strong affinity towards religiously conservative political movements. These movements are all Sunni. However, Ankara has a strong commercial interest in retaining ties with Iran – and therefore has assiduously worked to compartmentalize its relationship with the Islamic Republic. So, on the one hand, Turkey is engaged in a proxy war against Iran in Syria. Yet, on the other, it is reliant upon Iran for 20% of its yearly natural gas consumptions. If one wanted to be flippant, one could say Turkey’s “oil-for-gold” sanctions circumvention helped to sustain the very Assad/Iranian led war that it is trying to win. Ankara has historically kept Iran inside the tent so to speak during times of tension. The two sides support different actors in Kurdistan, for example, but work together to prevent the region’s independence. In this regard, the relationship is symbiotic. Iran needs Turkey to keep pressure on Barzani, whereas Iran retains links to Talabani. Davutoglu, in Strategic Depth, acknowledges an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq. It is in the Shia south and east of the country, whereas Turkey’s natural zone is Kurdistan and Ninewa, extending through Aleppo in Syria. All of this is to say that Davutoglu never rejected an Iranian role in Iraq, albeit while acknowledging that they compete for influence in certain spots.

One concern for Ankara is that Iran’s influence has grown so much, whereas Turkey’s remains limited through out Iraq. The balance is off, so to speak, and Turkey would like to see Iran’s role rolled-back, but recognizes it can’t be defeated. In many ways this is structural: Iran has direct control over its proxies, whereas Turkey’s control is tangential and limited to unpopular politicians, like Osama al Nujaifi – one of three ceremonial VP’s in Iraq’s central government. However, one has to remember, that things were a lot worse back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was so bad that Turkish warplanes bombed the Iranian side of the border at one point whilst attacking the PKK in the Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian border regions. Iran was also accused of working through Kurdish hizbullah to assassinate key Turkish secularists.

Saudi Arabia

The Yemen intervention stems from a rapprochement over the Muslim Brotherhood. King Salman recognized that the fitna was undermine Saudi foreign policy, and critically that he needed al Islah as a coalition of counter balancing forces towards the Houthis, which have the support of Ali Saleh. This gave the two sides the breathing room needed to cooperate – at least rhetorically – on what is a Saudi led fight in Yemen. It has to be noted that Sudan has committed more to the fight than Ankara in terms of military assets. The key area of convergence is actually in Syria, where Turkey has received Saudi support for its work with Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist rebels. That is a change in Saudi policy.

Nuclear Deal

As for the nuclear deal, Turkey’s policy differs considerably from that of Saudi Arabia. Turkey has always supported a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey has also steadfastly defended Iran’s right to enrich, so long that country meets its nonproliferation/IAEA commitments. Ankara’s reasons for doing so are threefold: First, Ankara has a tremendous economic interest in the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the major issue for these two countries before sanctions were significantly tightened was Iran’s closed economy and the barriers to entry for Turkish private industry to the 80 million person Iranian market. Second, Ankara ultimately views the Iranian nuclear program as something that can be deterred through IAEA inspections and the NATO security guarantee. Third, Turkey sees any limitations on the notional right to enrich as an encroachment on the basic bargain in the NPT – and thus jealously guards its understanding of Article IV. Iran, in this case, is simply a proxy for a broader argument about what the peaceful use clause means.

The Future

Turkey has always pursued a policy of compartmentalization with Iran, whereby it can fight a proxy war, whilst at the same looking to expand trade to $30 billion per year. I expect this continue. The rhetoric, therefore, should be viewed within the natural limits of Turkish-Iranian relations. Ankara can’t break with Iran and therefore can’t adopt Saudi Arabia’s policies carte blanche. Turkey will need to balance its approach to both countries, as it seeks to navigate through the chaos that is the Middle East.

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Nuclear Chain Nonsense

The sky is falling!

The United States is about to knock over the first domino and start the nuclear proliferation chain reaction in the Middle East. With the region at war, the argument goes, the American attempt to negotiate with Iran over its previous nuclear weapons work (and current nuclear infrastructure) is painfully naïve, and portends a future of nuclear-armed states. This new nuclear future, we are led to believe, will begin in Saudi Arabia; be followed by a Turkish nuclear weapons program; include a Hashemite bomb in Jordan; and end with Cairo dusting off those Nasser era plans for nuclear weapons (Hey, with Sisi going full Nasser on us, perhaps he may approach China about purchasing a weapon.)

One problem with this argument: It is at odds with all that we know about nonproliferation decision-making and, at least in the case of Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, is near impossible, given their choices about nuclear financing. The region is a mess. A total mess. But proliferation is – thank god – not something that should dominate the debate. In fact it misses the point entirely. Folks concerned with nuclear issues in the Middle East should certainly keep an eye on proliferation concerns, but should focus on a more serious issue: nuclear safety.

From the little we know about Saudi Arabia’s current nuclear plans, the Kingdom has pursued a rather benign approach to nuclear energy. After threatening to “go nuclear” for years, the Saudis chose to sign a MOU with South Korea’s KEPCO. Just next door, KEPCO is putting the finishing touches on the first of four reactors at the Barakh power plant. KEPCO has a great reputation for finishing projects on time, but is not really known to be the Korean peninsula’s equivalent of the AQ Khan network. Does South Korea have a pristine nonproliferation record? No. Has it exported enrichment or reprocessing technology to a customer? No. Will Saudi proliferate using a KEPCO APR1400. Hell no.

There is an elephant in the room. Pakistan, the argument goes, has reserved some warheads for Saudi Arabia’s defense. The Kingdom subsidized the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and therefore could try to collect on its investment. There is simply no way to account for this, other than look to history for some examples. The aforementioned Nasser asked a few countries for nukes during the 1960s. They said no. The Saudi case may indeed be different, owing to the Kingdom’s alleged investment in the program. My colleague and friend Philipp Bleek tackled this issue a few months ago, arguing:

History suggests that while some states have trumpeted their potential desire for nuclear weapons—think Germany in the early years of the Cold War, or Japan more recently—they tend not to be those that later went on to actually acquire them. And for good reason: calling attention to proliferation intentions is counterproductive if one is intent on actually proliferating. Instead, states tend to draw attention to their potential proliferation in the service of another goal: rallying others to address the security concerns that are motivating potential proliferation, and especially securing protection from powerful allies. At least one state, though, trumpeted its potential proliferation while actually pursuing nuclear weapons, and the case is an instructive one for analyzing Riyadh’s recent nuclear saber rattling.

 Again, the Kingdom chose KEPCO.

Turning to Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan – or as I have dubbed them, the Rosatom three. These three countries don’t have the cash to pay for a nuclear power plant. Or, if they do, they don’t want to pay ~$20 billion up front for their 70 year investment. To pay for their reactor, all three rely on a financing scheme known as Build, Operate, Own (BOO). Turgut Ozal came up with this idea in 1983 to help Turkey develop, after the country switched from import industrial substitution to export oriented capitalism. The BOO model was meant to attract private investment to what Ozal dubbed Turkey’s most trust-worthy sector: state-owned energy utilities.

This model is the reason why Turkey failed to procure a reactor between 1983 and 2010; more specifically, Ankara failed to give the vendor a treasury guarantee. It still doesn’t, arguing that the power purchasing arrangement with the electrical utility is good enough. Enter Rosatom. The Russian state-owned nuclear firm is not a private entity and receives ample funding from the Kremlin. Rosatom’s reactors are one of Russia’s few high-technology exports and the industry helps to employ Russia’s legions of Cold War era – and current – nuclear experts. The Kremlin, in turn, has also sought to use the company, as a tool of foreign policy, in much the same way Gazprom has become an arm of the Russian MFA.

For these reasons, Rosatom has embraced the BOO model – despite ample evidence that the financing for such a project makes little sense for the nuclear vendor. Under the terms of the BOO model, the vendor agrees to pay for the cost of construction and operate the plant in perpetuity, in exchange for the host-country to purchase a fixed amount of electricity at a set rate. For Turkey, that rate is 12.35 US cents per kilowatt-hour for 70% of the power produced at reactors one and two, and 30% of the power at the same price from reactors three and four.

After an agreed upon time – usually 15 years – the vendor is expected to have recouped its investment. In turn, Rosatom will then collect a percentage of the profit the Turkish state will make from the continued sale of Russian nuclear energy for the lifetime of the nuclear plant (70 years). This financing model puts pressure on Rosatom to finish the project on time, or otherwise risk extending the time in which it will recoup its initial outlay of expense – keeping in mind that the Kremlin is footing the bill for a $20 billion dollar investment. The Turkish reactor is now 4 years delayed.

Jordan and Egypt have announced that they too will pursue the BOO financing model. The good news: This model makes it all but impossible for the Rosatom three to proliferate. The reactor – a VVER-1200, or VVER-1000 – will be Russian owned and operated. The spent fuel pond will be Russian owned and operated. The fuel, Russian supplied. You get the point. So, if the Rosatom three wanted to proliferate, they would have to steal spent VVER LWR fuel from a Russian owned spent fuel pond and then reprocess it in facilities that don’t exist. They would have to do this without getting caught. Good luck.

The bad news: The BOO model is a regulatory nightmare. To ensure that Rostaom does not cut corners to hasten construction, the Rosatom three need strong, independent nuclear regulators. The regulator must also be empowered to influence the behavior of the operator. How will this work with a foreign owned and operated plant? Is Rosatom beholden to Turkey, or Moscow. At a bare minimum, you need a strong regulator and clear guidelines. The evidence is not encouraging: Turkey’s regulator is weak and beholden to the Prime Ministry for all its funds. Egypt’s is geriatric. And Jordan has no nuclear history. Not good.

If you add Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Bushehr, you can start to see a “nuclearized” region with little nuclear expertise – and nuclear regulations that are very much in their infancy. Is this the end of the world? No. There is stil time to work through these upcoming challenges. However, the regulatory issues are real and the international community has an incentive in ensuring that the region “gets this right.” Focusing on the long disproven idea of nuclear proliferation chains is not helpful and actually distracts from the issue we all should be focusing on: nuclear safety in a region (mostly) using creative financing techniques to “go nuclear.”

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A Look Behind the Curtain: The AKP’s Public Spat

Wow. It has been a busy week.

Turkish politics were turned upside down last week when AKP founder Bulent Arinc called out current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about his rhetoric surrounding the peace process. Arinc’s intervention prompted Erdogan ally, the Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, to get involved and stand up for the Tall Man. A fight ensued. The fight ended on Sunday with an Erdogan victory; the Presidential system he has been advocating for overtly since 2011 is the center piece of the AKP’s electoral manifesto. How did we get here? What is going on with the peace process? What in the world is going on in Turkish politics? Where do the Kurds and the MHP fit in?

Tune in today for a conversation about this very busy two weeks in Turkish politics with Noah Blaser, an independent journalist in Istanbul and a Turkey Wonk regular.

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