By Gevorg Novshadyan

In September 2019, at a nationalist rally in the eastern city of Sivas attended by members of his AK Party, Turkish President Recep Erdogan expressed his displeasure at the supposed disparity between the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. He particularly focused on the unfairness of Turkey not having nuclear weapons as a deterrent given the precarious geopolitical position the country has found itself in since the coup attempt against himself four years ago. 

In the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, international observers have turned their attention to the safety of the nuclear bombs at Incirlik Air Force Base. During the coup attempt, the Turkish commander at Incirlik joined the coup and was promptly stranded on his base after the coup’s failure. The post-coup atmosphere saw troops loyal to Erdogan harass the base and temporarily halt all operations. Laying siege to Incirlik did considerable damage to U.S.-Turkey relations because the base is where American B-61 nuclear bombs are housed. These bombs have been under constant pressure and pose a danger to global security if Turkey were somehow to get its hands on them. It is no surprise that there is a raging debate regarding the wisdom of keeping American nuclear weapons on Turkish territory. While the launch codes for those weapons are controlled by the U.S. military chain of command and can easily be locked to prevent Turkish troops from using the bombs, gaining access to those weapons would provide Turkish engineers with valuable information on how American nukes are built.

The nuclear bombs at Incirlik aren’t the only way Turkey can acquire that information. Turkey’s burgeoning nuclear energy industry, aided by Russian nuclear exports, presents serious proliferation concerns, especially if Erdogan’s displeasure with the status quo is turned into policy. In the coming decades, Turkey could acquire enough technical knowledge and experience to pursue its own indigenous nuclear capabilities, and the international community could be powerless in stopping it. 

Turkey is a signatory to all major IAEA protocols, and its contract with Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency, for the nuclear plant at Akkuyu is “proliferation resistant,” according to experts. Rosatom having effective control over Turkey’s nuclear reactor reduces the likelihood that Turkey could attain a nuclear weapon, but Turkish engineers working in the Akkuyu plant can gain valuable knowledge which they could then apply to a weapons program. Even so, experts believe that it is in Turkey’s best interest to continue abiding by its agreements and that Erdogan’s words are just bluster designed to play into the prevailing domestic anti-Western mood.

There is a history of states violating IAEA agreements, though the mechanism to punish noncompliance can easily be subverted. Consider the following scenario: The IAEA is notified by its inspectors that Turkey is violating its safeguards agreements. Having no authority to punish this noncompliance, the IAEA defers to the UN Security Council to pass judgment. Turkey, being in a military alliance with the United States and a top client for Russian nuclear exports, escapes unscathed after either the Americans or the Russians veto a UNSC resolution sanctioning Turkey and demanding it fully comply with its IAEA obligations, resulting in a green light for Turkey to continue on its path of becoming the world’s newest member of the nuclear club.

At the time of the Sivas rally, Turkey was preparing to invade Northern Syria in an attempt to shore up its defenses against the alleged threat posed by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey’s recent maneuvers indicate that it is trying to practice a more independent foreign policy outside of NATO. Erdogan’s willingness to show off his neo-Ottoman ambitions, flaunt international norms, and extend Turkish power abroad has troubled Ankara’s neighbors and destabilized a region already befallen with refugee crises, economic woes, and a pandemic. In the past year alone, Turkish forces have not only invaded Syrian territory but also expanded their operations in Libya, engaged in a standoff with Greek and French forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, and conducted bombing raids in Iraq. Furthermore, Erdogan and his followers have revived Ataturk’s National Pact, a century-old plan which declares that Turkey is the rightful heir to territories that currently fall within the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Greece. Complicating matters is Turkey’s recent purchase of Russia’s S400 system, which has worried NATO allies because of its incompatibility with NATO systems. A nuclear Turkey would be able to exercise almost complete independence from Brussels and Washington in its foreign policy, which is dangerous and undesirable not only for the United States and NATO, but also for Turkey’s traditional foe, Russia, as Ankara would be liberated to pursue a more offensive foreign policy vis-a-vis Moscow.

Turkey is only one domino that can fall if the existing regime of arms control treaties is not honored and built upon. The most effective way of preventing a nuclear Turkey is preventing a nuclear Iran. The collapse of the JCPOA and the specter of a nuclear Iran is a major factor in Erdogan’s calculus. It is imperative for the global community that Iran be brought back to the negotiating table and a new nuclear deal be signed and—importantly—ratified. If Iran never crosses the nuclear threshold, then neither will Turkey, as the need to balance against a nuclear Tehran will not come to pass. Should Ankara proceed with a nuclear weapons program anyway, it should be subject to an international nuclear embargo until it comes into compliance with its international obligations, and in the most extreme scenario, NATO member states should look into mechanisms to remove Turkey from the alliance. In any case, Turkey’s nuclear program should nevertheless be strictly monitored and the peaceful nature of those activities verified on a consistent basis. 

The year 2023 is an important one for observers of Turkey’s nuclear program, as that year is when the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, Turkey’s first, is scheduled to come online, making Turkey’s ambitions more clear. The threat may very well come to pass as nothing but a threat. This rests upon the international community adopting several measures to reestablish confidence in the nonproliferation regime, something which looks unlikely at the moment but is necessary to prevent a new nuclear arms race. A nuclear Turkey would help realize Erdogan’s dreams of a Pan-Turkic Empire. So long as Erdogan continues on his revanchist path of returning Turkey to its Ottoman glory, the threat posed by Turkey gaining nuclear capabilities cannot be disregarded.

Gevorg Novshadyan is a graduate of the dual-degree program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies and International Affairs with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). This article is based on his masters thesis titled “Potential Vulnerabilities in Existing Safeguards and Verification Policy: A Case Study of Turkey’s Nuclear Ambitions.” He can be reached via Twitter at @arabrogevorg.