Turkey’s Nuclear Crossroads Turkey’s Nuclear Crossroads
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Turkey’s Nuclear Crossroads

by Alexandra Bell

August 26, 2009

Turkey has quietly held NATO tactical nuclear weapons since the Cold War. Removing them will be a critical step towards a safer world. But it won't be easy.


On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama made a speech in Prague outlining his intention to make nuclear disarmament, with the eventual goal of elimination, the organizing principle of U.S. nuclear policy. Now the task is to figure out the how to actually get to zero nuclear weapons.

There are approximately 23,335 nuclear weapons held between nine nations: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. Less widely known are the five other states that hold nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, NATO deployed nonstrategic or "tactical" nuclear weapons  in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Today these aging weapons are more of a liability than an asset-their size and portability makes them attractive to terrorists.

The removal of these tactical nukes is an early step on the long road to zero. Getting the five NATO members who hold the tactical nukes to relinquish them quietly will take care, and Turkey may be the toughest piece in this particular part of the disarmament puzzle.

I recently returned from a trip to Turkey, coordinated by the Truman National Security Project, an institute that recruits, trains, and positions a new generation of Americans to lead on national security. In discussions with government officials, civil servants, retired military personnel, academics, and businessmen, two things became clear: First, that it is difficult to be positioned at a geographical and societal crossroads, and second, that you are stuck with your neighbors.

The Turks look around them and see conflicts and threats in most directions. I was interested in what the Turks saw when they looked towards Tehran. Specifically, I asked about the threat, perceived or real, from the Iranian nuclear program. The answers varied sharply.  Some dismissed the threat, noting that the Turks and the Persians had not been in conflict for 500 years. Others shuddered at the mention of a nuclear Iran. But regardless of the official line that Iran is an important trading partner and a regional ally, I think the Turks would not abide a nuclear Iran. In fact, when asked directly about the response to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, a high-ranking official from the Foreign Ministry said that Turkey would follow suit-immediately.

I took this as a confirmation of the oft-repeated theory that if Iran attains a nuclear weapon, surrounding nations will acquire them too, resulting in a "cascade of proliferation." Throwing multiple nuclear arsenals into a region with many long-standing tensions, disputed borders, and conflicting ethno-religious sects is a recipe for catastrophe.

Turkey has a vastly superior military force and would not be directly threatened by Iran (a few people I spoke to flippantly noted that it was Israel who would be in trouble). Nevertheless, nations acquire nuclear weapons not only for security, but also for pride and prestige. Having a nuclear capability elevates a nation into an elite, if dubious, club.

At the moment, Turkey seems alright with the status quo. It does not have a nuclear adversary, and in addition to being covered by NATO's strategic security umbrella, it also houses an estimated 50 to 90 tactical nuclear weapons. Turkish officials were cagey about discussing these weapons. A former Air Force general, following what seemed to be the official line, denied that there were nuclear weapons in Turkey, saying they were removed at the end of the Cold War. This differed from the other officials I met, whose wink-wink references basically confirmed the presence of the nukes. They also hinted that the weapons would be critically important if a certain neighbor got the bomb.

Polling I had seen previously indicated ample public support in Turkey for giving up these weapons, but my trip there made it clear that polling, papers, and news reports are no substitute for actually going to a country and meeting with people. Most Turks I met would answer disarmament questions in entirely different ways, depending on whether or not Iran was referenced.

Removing tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey will be difficult, but not impossible. In order to move towards a world free of nuclear weapons, U.S. policy makers have to start thinking about how things are connected. Countries like Turkey rely on nuclear weapons for political and security reasons. To feel comfortable without nukes, these countries must be convinced that their neighbors will not acquire them. That means efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles-including tactical nukes-and efforts to stop the creation of new nuclear programs must happen in concert.

Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione notes that disarmament and nonproliferation are two sides of the same coin: disarmament creates the unity needed to prevent proliferation, which provides the security needed for disarmament. I have no doubt that the Turks with whom I met would agree.

Alexandra Bell is a Project Manager at the Ploughshares Fund and a Truman National Security Fellow.

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Turkey’s Nuclear Crossroads