Turkey’s Erdoğan feeds Middle East nuclear proliferation concerns – analyst

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assertion this month that Turkey should be able to acquire nuclear weapons feeds into grave concerns of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, wrote Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the independent Israeli research institute, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

In a first public reference on the issue, Erdoğan said on Sept. 4 that it was unacceptable for nuclear-armed states to forbid Turkey from obtaining its own nuclear weapons, falling short of saying whether Ankara had plans to obtain them.

The Turkish president, for a long time, has attributed much importance to the development of the Turkish defence industry and attainment of independent military capabilities, the article said.

The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the United States over the purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia, followed by the freeze on Turkey’s participation in the programme to build and operate F-35 fighter jets, Lindenstrauss wrote, had made it clear for Turkey that relying on external providers to attain advanced military capabilities was problematic. 

The country has made progress in missile-building and has a civilian nuclear programme, with plans to build some 20 electrical reactors, the first of which is currently under construction and will be operated by Russia’s Rosatom.

The Russian state nuclear energy firm began construction of the Akkuyu nuclear plant in the southern Turkish province of Mersin last year.

In talks with other states such as Japan, Turkey has reserved the option of enriching uranium, despite the fact that it has no such capability at present, arousing suspicion that it intends to develop future nuclear capabilities of a non-civilian nature, the article said. 

Erdoğan’s comments should be viewed in the broader context of the crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, which have become enflamed by Turkey’s accusations that the United States was involved in the failed coup attempt of July 2016 and by Washington’s support for Kurdish militants in northern Syria, Lindenstrauss wrote. 

“Erdoğan’s statement on the nuclear issue feeds a central fear, namely, that the Middle East will become home to several nuclear powers,’’ the article said. It said that Erdoğan’s change of rhetoric, from calls for nuclear disarmament to the threat to join the circle of states with military nuclear capabilities, could not be overlooked.