Turkey could steal U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik - analyst

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hinting last week at acquiring nuclear weapons left observers envisioning how that might happen, including a possible theft from its NATO ally, said an analysis on Monday in conservative U.S. outlet The National Interest. 

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Plowshares Fund, told National Interest reporter Matthew Petti that the threat is real, but not imminent. “If Turkey wanted to build a nuclear bomb, it could,” he said. “It would take decades. It's not something that would happen overnight.”

A U.S. State Department official pointed out that Turkey agreed to never acquire nuclear weapons by signing the nonproliferation treaty.

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkey programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Petti that Erdoğan’s comments came from his perception that the unipolar world order imposed by the U.S. is collapsing and he can be more aggressive in his neighborhood.

“Turkey has also been quite aggressive in pushing against Greece and Greek Cypriots in the Eastern [Mediterranean] lately, and I think this is also part and parcel of Erdoğan’s policy of sending signals to Athens,” said Çağaptay, adding that the president also sought to excite his right-wing voter base. 

“Nuclear weapons is this ideal way to boost Turkey's ego, because remember, Turks are grandchildren of an empire,” he said. 

Nonproliferation experts worry that fear of a nuclear-armed Iran could drive Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey to pursue the bomb, and Cirincione says Turkey has the most developed industrial base, educated population, and engineering potential.

Also, Turkey has two possible shortcuts to a bomb: buying fuel or even a weapon from nuclear-armed Pakistan, a close ally, or stealing a U.S. hydrogen bomb from Incirlik Air Base in southeast Turkey.

“You could imagine if Turkey attacks a U.S. base, this is an extreme measure. It would not go unanswered. So, there’s a huge deterrent to doing it,” said Cirincione. 

During the July 2016 coup attempt, mutinous Turkish officers took over the Turkish garrison at the base, prompting Turkish authorities to cut İncirlik’s electricity and seal off the base from the outside. 

“It would not be a trivial military operation, but there's no question they could overrun the base and take the bombs,” Cirincione said. “How many red flashing lights do you need before you take the bombs out of Turkey? It’s an insane place to keep nuclear weapons...We’re never going to use the bombs we store in Turkey, but Erdoğan might.”