It is no secret that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees his country as the pre-eminent Muslim power in the Middle East. He regards his vision of political Islam as competing with that of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He frequently accuses the United States of trying to belittle his country, and ruminates about a “greater Turkey.” But does Erdogan believe that Turkey has the right or need to acquire nuclear weapons to cement its status?
Last month the Turkish leader suggested as much, saying that “some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.” He went on to single out Israel, saying: “We have Israel nearby, almost as neighbours. They scare others by possessing these. No one can touch them.”
It was the first time Erdogan, who was speaking at a provincial rally of his governing AKP party, had raised the subject. It may have been the Turkish leader riling up his nationalist base. It may also have been a warning that, should Iran and Saudi Arabia move toward becoming nuclear-armed states, Turkey would not stand idly by.
Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS News that the Kingdom “does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
And, in part, the Turkish leader’s remarks may have simply been his trademark blunt – and sometimes incendiary – rhetoric. Erdogan has compared both modern Germany and Israel with the Nazis, and has threatened to unleash hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees on Europe.
But it’s a long leap from a couple of lines at a party meeting to a program to develop nuclear weapons. Turkey is developing (with Russian help) a nuclear power program, but it is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and there is a whole world of difference between energy and weapons.
Ziya Meral, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, says that, at the moment, “there is no tangible sign that Turkey is set to pursue nuclear weapons, nor that we are witnessing a substantial shift in Turkey’s decades-long policy of not pursuing them.”
“In practical terms, it would take a decade with substantial financial commitment and against substantial global pressure, both of which would make [nuclear weapons] truly costly and damaging,” Meral told CNN.
Meral says this appeals to religious and conservative circles as well as an influential strand of opinion that welcomes Erdogan taking a stand against what are perceived as the double standards of the West.
Under Erdogan, Turkey is no longer the obedient NATO ally guarding the alliance’s southern flank against Russian expansionism. Partly in response to Europe’s less than wholehearted embrace, Erdogan has imagined a new place for Turkey, one where it will pick and choose its allies and project power thousands of miles from its coast.
This expansionist role includes a garrison of troops in Qatar, a growing naval role in the Red Sea, support for Libya‘s government against the Saudi/UAE-backed forces of Khalifa Haftar and Turkey’s largest overseas military base in Somalia.
The sea-change in Erdogan’s policy came in the wake of the Arab Spring, when he visited Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli to tout the virtues of the “Turkish model” to societies very much in flux, or even chaos: a Muslim society in a secular, free-market state.
That didn’t work out so well – but the civil war that erupted in Syria only deepened Erdogan’s determination to project Turkish influence.
US President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, regards this as profound, describing it as the greatest geopolitical shift in the post-Cold War era. He told an audience last month that under President Erdogan, Turkey “wants to see itself as shifting away from Europe and being more in the Middle East and more Eastern leaning so that it can play situations to its own advantage.”
It’s a view echoed by commentator Aaron Stein, who wrote in foreign policy website War on the Rocks that Erdogan: “Seemed to be using nuclear weapons as a straw man to make a broader argument about Ankara’s place in the world, and how the American and Western systems with which Turkey had long associated itself are unfair and require change.”
“He was expounding on a more personal, deeply held grievance about Turkey’s global role,” Stein says.
Erdogan has already taken this tack when complaining about western “financiers” undermining the Turkish economy. Last year, as the Turkish lira crumbled on international markets, he said those who plotted against Turkey in a failed coup attempt were instead trying to target the country through its economy.
And during his spat with the Trump administration over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, Erdogan declared: “This is not some random country. This is Turkey.”
Erdogan is, first and last, a Turkish nationalist; no sleight – perceived or otherwise – will go unanswered.
Now in power for nearly 17 years, President Erdogan is Turkish policy. Power has been concentrated in a small circle around him; Ankara’s foreign policy is driven by his instincts. They may change depending on tactical advantage (the fall-out and subsequent make-up with Moscow, for example, and the exploitation of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder to seek to humiliate the Saudis).
But fundamentally, Erdogan sees the world in terms of competing powers – the US, China, Russia – that Turkey must deal with to its own advantage. Inevitably, this means a decoupling from Washington.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Twitter earlier this month that the US was “long overdue to give up fiction” that Erdogan’s Turkey was an ally.
“US should withdraw all nuclear weapons, reduce reliance on Turkey’s bases, and restrict intelligence sharing and arms sales. Should also articulate red lines in Syria,” Haass tweeted.
Arguably more important than a provocative line about nuclear weapons in a speech to the party faithful was the sight of Presidents Erdogan and Putin in August as they enjoyed an ice cream while admiring Russia’s new Su-57 combat jet.
In a dig over the US threat to withhold F-35 sales to Ankara, Erdogan turned to Putin and was heard asking: “So now, we are going to buy this one?”
As Stein concludes: “Ankara is not leaving NATO, nor will it turn East. Instead, the current leadership rejects the current rules of the road and wants to change them. That may actually be worse for Washington.”