Numerous reports have been written about Turkey’s nuclear ambitions. A New York Times article on 20 October 2019 held that these ambitions date back to the 1970s.
As far as the pre-21st century period is concerned, the reports lack reliable intelligence, official statements by Turkish or international officials, or other evidence to corroborate concrete Turkish nuclear ambitions during that period. From the 1970s to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey had no logical reason to go after the bomb.
Firstly, as a NATO ally since 1953, it hosted on its territory an American arsenal of nuclear weapons. There was no need to search for one in order to protect itself against threats from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Secondly, from the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, Turkey was too politically unstable and lacked a sufficiently strong economic base to contemplate the nuclear option.
We can therefore presume that any serious thought about acquiring a nuclear weapon would not have begun before the mid-1990s, and if so, only tentatively. That was when Ankara started to worry whether the West might no longer need NATO and, hence, Turkey in the new world order that was taking shape after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Still, even if such anxieties concerned Turkish leaders in that decade, the country’s political instability and economic weakness would have prevented the translation of nuclear ambitions into practical policy. In all events, NATO not only remained intact, contrary to the expectations of many at the time, it expanded, setting Turkish minds to rest with regard to the strategic importance of their country to the West. So, again, they would have had little need to contemplate the nuclear option.
The likelihood, therefore, is that any substantial designs for obtaining nuclear weapons technology began in the Erdogan era. Most probably they began to take shape gradually about five years after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, which is to say starting in and around 2007. As to why Erdogan would seek nuclear weapons capacities, this brings us to what we might term the “fear of falling syndrome” that plagues regimes built around doctrinaire religio-political ideologies, to which we will return below.
The first five countries to obtain nuclear weapons — the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China — were motivated primarily by strategic concerns related to developments in the international order after World War II. The other countries that entered the nuclear club subsequently did so despite the restriction the aforementioned five countries tried to impose.
India and Pakistan performed a series of nuclear tests in the 1970s and 1990s. Reliable reports confirm that Israel had the bomb since the 1960s, even though it continues to deny it today.
North Korea has become a nuclear power despite insufficient intelligence on the size of its arsenal.
More recently, reports indicate that Iran could join the nuclear club within a year if the crisis that was triggered by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran persists without a solution. Iraq, too, was suspected of seeking to develop nuclear weapons production capacity before Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981.
If this brief history tells us anything it is that the policy of nuclear containment beyond the five first nuclear powers has been a dismal failure and that even more countries might want to join the nuclear club. Turkey may be the first in line.
There is good reason to believe that the theocratic regimes or ultranationalist/religiously doctrinaire regimes that have risen to power in the Third World will be more likely to pursue the nuclear alternative than others.
Of the six other countries that have obtained or are seeking to obtain nuclear arms capacities (Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Turkey) only India, which conducted its first atomic test in 1974, can be said to have been motivated by pressures emanating from its strategic environment (threats to its national security by great powers such as the US and China).
The others were driven to obtain nuclear weapons technology by a complex weave of religious/doctrinal political motives and paranoias nurtured on foreign conspiracy theories and certain ideological myths.
The Pakistani nuclear project was introduced in late 1970s, in the era of the hardline Islamist president Zia-Ul-Haq, in order to confront “Hindu arrogance”. In North Korea, the driving force was Juche, the official state ideology which has evolved into something of a national religion that perceives a perpetual threat to its existence from abroad and seeks to preserve itself against contamination from “others”.
The Iranian theocratic regime and its nuclear programme sustain themselves on the myth of Western hostility to Islamic regimes. Even Israel, which boasts of being a model of Western secularism, cannot evade the fact that the motives behind its nuclear armaments programme are deeply rooted in the Jewish theology and mindset shaped by the myth of “God’s chosen people” and fear of a universal anti-semitism that threatens the survival of the Jewish people. Such regimes grounded in sectarian/religious/ethnic/identity ideologies are more inclined to obtain nuclear weapons because they feel more threatened and believe that this is the only weapon that will deter their enemies abroad.
The current regime in Ankara certainly fits the bill. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outlook as the self-appointed godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood, his irredentist ambitions to revive the Islamic Ottoman Empire under Turkey’s leadership, and his fear that he and his project have fallen out of favour with the West because of his failure to present Turkey as a model of “moderate” Islamist government in harmony with Western values, are among the factors that have impelled him to shift his foreign policy orientation and lock horns with the US and Europe during recent years.
The shift has been increasingly fed by the usual types of conspiracy theories espoused by regimes that claim to represent Islam, making the Erdogan regime look more and more like the Mullahs’ regime in Tehran which was driven by similar fixations to pursue a nuclear programme that continues to fire tensions between it and the US today.
*The writer is an expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.