Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nuclear Posturing

I have an article up on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website that takes a look at what's driving Turkey's contrarian approach to the Iranian nuclear issue (a mix of commercial, political and ideological reasons). You can read the article here.

The piece also takes a look at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly frequent calls, as part of his stated desire to see the Middle East as a nuclear-free region, for Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal to also be examined by those who criticize Iran. An interesting aspect to this, which I didn't have the space to get into in my article, is how Erdogan's approach might impact the question of the American nuclear weapons that Turkey hosts at Incirlik airbase in the country's south.

Turkey is one of five European countries that is home to U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, with an estimated 90 bombs at Incirlik. Today's Zaman's Lale Kemal took a look at this issue in a column today. From her piece:
While the issue of Iran has continued to be a matter of serious disagreement between Turkey and the US in particular, Erdoğan will soon face a dilemma over nuclear arms the US deployed during the Cold War years at İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. This displays an inconsistency between Erdoğan's call for a nuclear-free zone in the region while hosting US nuclear weapons on its soil. Will Erdoğan be ready to agree on the withdrawal of those weapons at İncirlik?....

....While there has been a debate over whether those nuclear weapons are enough of a deterrent to meet today's threats, the US is believed to keep the nukes at İncirlik as a means of deterring Iran from any possible nuclear strike.

According to one opinion, it may be good to keep the guns on the table because in taking the guns off the table, one can lose tremendous leverage over the other.

When asked for his opinion on the nukes at İncirlik whilst on board the plane taking him to Washington on Sunday, Erdoğan refrained from talking about this specific issue. He only said there have been changes at İncirlik under his government, but he fell short of elaborating.

Though his remarks over this issue were unclear, it is known that the US has expanded its operations at İncirlik in the last 10 years. The US has been using İncirlik as an air bridge for flights to Afghanistan and as a cargo hub for neighboring Iraq, and as a consequence Turkey has become more agreeable to İncirlik being used for other purposes.

In the meantime, despite Erdoğan's call for a nuclear free zone in the region, it will be interesting to see what his stance will be when the possibility of withdrawing nuclear bombs from İncirlik begins to be debated as part of START. Will Erdoğan agree or disagree over their withdrawal, placed at the time as part of a NATO requirement? Turkey will be at a crossroads on its overall nuclear arms policy.
You can read the full column here.

The issue of the U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey was also the subject of an interesting analysis a few months back in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. From that piece, which takes a look at some of the obstacles to removing the U.S. nukes from Turkey (one of them, according to the authors, being Ankara's concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions):
Then there is the issue of Tehran's nuclear program, which seriously complicates any discussion of the United States removing its tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey. An Iranian nuclear capability could spark an arms race in the Middle East and bring about a "proliferation cascade," which could cause Turkey to reconsider its nuclear options--especially if the United States pulls its nuclear weapons from Incirlik. When asked directly about its response to an Iranian nuclear weapon, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said that Turkey would immediately arm itself with a bomb. This isn't Ankara's official policy, but it seems to indicate a general feeling among its leaders. Whether Turkey is primarily concerned about security or prestige, the bottom line is that it would not sit idly by as Iran established a regional hegemony.
This seems to be one legacy of Turkey's Cold War relationship with the U.S. that Ankara has held off on revisiting. The full piece is here.

[UPDATE: More on the subject of the nukes in Turkey in this analysis by Richard Weitz.]

It's hard to criticize some of the sentiment and logic behind Erdogan's calls for greater scrutiny of Israel's nuclear program, as part of a wider effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Who doesn't want a region (or a world, for that matter) free of nukes? But it seems like the PM's current approach -- soft on Iran, hard on Israel -- is not creating the kind of environment that would either keep Tehran from moving ahead with its historic quest to obtain nuclear weapons or would convince Jerusalem it's safe enough to give up its long-held policy of maintaining an ambiguous nuclear deterrent. If anything, Erdogan's increasingly belligerent criticism of Israel has only worked to make the country feel more isolated in the region, which can only work to make it hold to its nukes even tighter.

Really moving the Middle East in a direction that would end up with the region being a nuclear free one requires visionary statesmanship and the presence of actors who can transcend the region's tribal battles and deep-seated enmity. Turkey is (or was, one could argue) perhaps the only country with the potential to play that role, but, for now, it seems that Erdogan is mostly offering populist posturing on a subject that is, to say the least, explosive.

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