During the 17 years he has ruled NATO-member Turkey, the country's Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has rarely missed an opportunity stealthily to convert Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's secular, pro-Western establishment into a rogue state hostile to Western interests. Erdoğan now wants to make it a rogue state with nuclear weapons.
"They say we can't have nuclear-tipped missiles, though some have them. This, I can't accept," Erdoğan said in a September 4 speech, while conveniently forgetting that Turkey has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1980. In other words, Turkey's elected leader publicly declares that he intends to breach an international treaty signed by his country. Turkey is also a signatory to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear detonations, for any purpose.
"They say we can't have nuclear-tipped missiles ... This, I can't accept," says Erdoğan.
For several decades, Turkey, being a staunch NATO ally, was viewed as the trusted custodian of some of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In the early 1960s, the U.S. started stockpiling nuclear warheads at the Turkish military's four main airbases (Ankara Mürted, Malatya Erhaç, Eskişehir and Balıkesir). If ordered, Turkish air force pilots were tasked with hitting designated Warsaw Pact targets.
Squadrons of jets designated for carrying nuclear bombs were kept at each airbase (first F-100s, followed by F-104s and finally by F-4s) on a round-the-clock basis. Each base housed a small U.S. military unit in charge of the nuclear stockpile. In addition, a Turkish-U.S. military base in Incirlik in southern Turkey kept nuclear warheads to be operated by U.S. military. "With that role Turkey significantly added to NATO's deterrence in Cold War years," said Yusuf Kanlı, a prominent columnist and president of the Ankara-based think tank, Sigma Turkey, in a private interview on September 9.
After the end of the Cold War, the nuclear weapons in Turkish possession (at the four airbases, except Incirlik) were gradually removed, while nuclear guardianship came to a halt. Presently, the nuclear warheads at Incirlik still remain at the disposal of the U.S. military under a special U.S.-Turkish treaty. That treaty makes Turkey the host of U.S. nuclear weapons. According to the usage protocol, however, both Washington and Ankara need to give consent to any use of the nuclear weapons deployed at Incirlik.
This is not, in fact, the first time Erdoğan has voiced an eagerness to make Turkey a nuclear-armed state. As early as 2008 -- when he was the poster child of naïve Western statesmen and intellectuals who believed he was a reformist democrat -- Erdoğan said: "Countries that oppose Iran's nuclear weapons should not have nuclear weapons themselves." Despite his use of the plural "countries," Erdoğan was apparently pointing his finger at the country he hates the most: Israel, not the United States.
The launch of a Turkish nuclear weapons program could well have a domino effect on the region.
In a 2010 speech, Erdoğan described Israel as "the principal threat to peace" in the Middle East. In that speech, he repeated his skepticism about whether Iran intended to use its nuclear-fuel program to build nuclear weapons, and said there was no such uncertainty concerning Israel's undeclared arsenal.
If Turkey overtly or covertly launched a nuclear weapons program -- as Erdoğan apparently wishes -- the move could well have a domino effect on the region. Turkey's regional adversaries would be alarmed, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Greece might be tempted to launch their own nuclear weapons programs. Erdoğan should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.
Burak Bekdil is a fellow at the Middle East Forum.