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March 2, 2009
Summary: Could the emergence of a nuclear Iran be accommodated comfortably in the Turkish security scene? Or would it spell a fundamental and negative transformation of the strategic environment? The answer to this question should inform the Turkish calculus as the international community grapples with the challenge of a near-nuclear Iran. With an Iran sanctions vote looming in the UN Security Council, Turkey will be faced with some uncomfortable decisions, and the need to take much tougher messages to Tehran.
Can Turkey Live with a Nuclear Iran?
by Dr. Ian O. Lesser*
Turkey has lived for decades with nuclear arsenals in its neighborhood. Could the emergence of a nuclear Iran be accommodated comfortably in the Turkish security scene? Or would it spell a fundamental and negative transformation of the strategic environment? The answer to this question should inform the Turkish calculus as the international community grapples with the challenge of a near-nuclear Iran. The prevailing Turkish tendency to equate Iranian and Israeli nuclear capabilities obscures the hard security consequences of Iranian proliferation for Turkey and the region. With an Iran sanctions vote looming in the UN Security Council, Turkey will be faced with some uncomfortable decisions, and the need to take much tougher messages to Tehran. Turkey’s nuclear perspective Throughout the Cold War, Turkey confronted the reality of Soviet nuclear weapons on its borders and shared in the doctrinal and operational aspects of NATO nuclear planning. Yet, in contrast to the situation on NATO’s central front, defense on the flanks, and especially in NATO’s southern region, was never as reliant on nuclear
forces and strategy. This was a theater in which Turkey’s large conventional land forces were a major factor in the military balance. The arcane dynamics of nuclear deterrence and strategic “coupling” within the alliance operated in a more diffuse fashion in NATO’s south, and especially in Turkey. Despite the formal solidarity suggested by NATO’s Article V guarantee, the defense of Frankfurt and the defense of Ankara (or Athens, for that matter) were never entirely equivalent concerns for many alliance members. The notion that American and European allies would accept the risk of nuclear retaliation in defense of Turkish territory was never quite as straightforward as in the defense of Western Europe. In doctrinal terms, of course, the commitment was equal. In political terms, the guarantee often appeared less clear cut. The relative remoteness of Turkey from the core strategic competition in Europe gave questions of nuclear forces, nuclear strategy, and the public debate over nuclear weapons and arms control a more esoteric quality when seen from Ankara. In the years since the end of the Cold War, Turks have remained less obsessed with questions of nuclear
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Dr. Ian O. Lesser is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
strategy and nuclear proliferation. Exposure to weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems of greater range and accuracy has never been at the forefront of Turkish perceptions about Iraq, Iran, or Syria. Even in periods when Turkish relations with these countries have been troubled or crisis prone, proliferation risks were usually a secondary or tertiary concern. Turkish defense planning has been dominated by the requirements of conventional defense and irregular warfare. The positive transformation of Ankara’s relations with Middle Eastern neighbors in recent years has been driven by political normalization and commercial activism. Proliferation has not been central to the agenda, despite Turkey’s pronounced exposure to ballistic missiles based in the region. Turkish strategists are certainly aware of this exposure, but as a rule, Turks prefer to focus on intentions rather than capabilities when debating proliferation in their neighborhood. Improved relations with Teheran and Damascus have simply lowered the perception of risk. They have also opened a considerable gap in perception between Turkey and many of its NATO allies, and above all, with Israel.
the implications for Turkish security, including the implications if Iran remains on the nuclear threshold for some time to come. First, a nuclear-armed Iran could prove a fundamentally different regional actor from the Turkish perspective. If Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, including a full fuel cycle capability, are aimed at bolstering the country’s regional weight and prestige, Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power could make it a much more difficult partner for Ankara. Even assuming that a more assertive Iran maintains stable relations with Turkey, Ankara will still be affected by heightened competition and a heightened sense of risk elsewhere, including in Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states. Israel and the West will not be the only sources of pressure on Ankara when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, this is already visible as Egypt and the Gulf states seek to shape Turkey’s position on prospective UN Security Council action against Tehran. Iranian proxies around the region, from Iraq to Lebanon to Gaza, would likely be emboldened by the existence of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. Turkey’s “zero problems” approach to regional policy may prove less sustainable under conditions of greater instability and greater competition across the board. Second, there is a substantial risk that a nuclear-armed Iran will not be tolerated by the United States, or by Israel, where a nuclear Iran is seen as posing an existential threat. To be sure, there is an active debate in both countries about the feasibility, merits and disadvantages of military action to prevent the emergence of a nuclear armed Iran, or at least to set back the clock on the Iranian nuclear program. It is almost impossible to imagine the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government cooperating in a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, short of an explicit Iranian threat to Turkish territory. In a narrow sense, Turkey might benefit from the elimination of a new nuclear arsenal on its borders. But Turkish policymakers rightly worry about the “open account” that such an operation would create across the region. Even if the most concerned states opt to defer military action, Turkey will confront an ongoing risk of conflict in its neighborhood and steady diplomatic pressure from all
“The prevailing Turkish tendency to equate Iranian and Israeli nuclear capabilities obscures the hard security consequences of Iranian proliferation for Turkey and the region.”
Tangible security consequences The rise of a more cooperative Turkish-Iranian relationship in political and commercial terms does not mean that Turkey will be insulated from the negative effects of a new nuclear arsenal on its borders. It is worth thinking through
sides. In the event that Iran itself decides not to cross the threshold to a deployable weapons capability but retains an active, covert nuclear program, Ankara could find itself embroiled in a new and extended strategy of containment aimed at Tehran from both sides of the Atlantic. Under these conditions, Ankara’s closer relations with Iran will be increasingly at odds with Western policy, further complicating Turkey’s relations with the European Union, NATO, and Washington. Third, the emergence of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran will have a range of specific and potentially costly consequences for Turkish defense. A nuclear-armed Iran will put nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy back at the center of NATO planning in ways that Turkey may find uncomfortable. As enhanced missile defenses are put in place across the region, Turkey may find it hard to reconcile its political stake in relations with Iran (and Syria) with the growing problem of missile defense for Turkish population centers. Will Turkey wish to play a more active role in multilateral missile defense architecture, or will it prefer to opt out and concentrate on (very expensive) national programs? It is fashionable to talk about the potential for cascading nuclear proliferation affecting multiple neighborhoods on Turkey’s borders. This would surely be transforming for a country grown skeptical of NATO security guarantees, and with no nuclear weapons ambitions of its own. But this may be the least likely case. More likely, indeed virtually certain, is the effect of a nuclear-ready Iran on conventional military balances and doctrines, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and the Gulf. Even short of a nuclear arms race, Ankara could face a strategic environment characterized by rapid technical change, revived conventional arms competitions, and new risks to confidence even where political relationships have grown more stable (e.g., in the Aegean). What will Turkey do? Within the next few weeks, and in the absence of visible progress on the diplomatic front, the UN Security Council is likely to take up the question of new economic sanctions against Iran. This will pose serious dilemmas for Turkey’s leadership. Ankara has understandably opposed the idea
of economic sanctions that would harm Turkish economic interests and, it argues, are unlikely to change Iranian behavior (they may well be right about this). A negotiated solution, perhaps with a Turkish role in nuclear storage and enrichment arrangements, would certainly be the best outcome for Ankara. But the prospects for a solution of this kind are not good, and Ankara may now confront some very uncomfortable decisions. The government’s choices can have far reaching implications.
“If Turkey votes “no” or opts to abstain in a Security Council vote . . .it may actually hasten the use of force to deal with the problem—the worst development from the perspective of Turkish interests.”
If Turkey votes “no” or opts to abstain in a Security Council vote, it will bolster unnecessarily the view of those who argue that Ankara is drifting toward closer alignment with Middle Eastern and Eurasian partners. It will fuel the sterile debate about “losing Turkey” and complicate Turkish-Western relations across the board. Far more importantly, the absence of consensus with Turkey may actually hasten the use of force to deal with the problem—the worst development from the perspective of Turkish interests. In Washington, the looming Iran sanctions question is emerging as the leading test for U.S.-Turkish relations under the Obama administration. The challenge of a nuclear Iran is one of the inescapable foreign policy issues facing an administration hard pressed on several fronts. Iran policy can reinforce or seriously erode the bilateral goodwill established over the past year. If Turkey cannot support a sanctions package in the Security Council—and this may turn critically on what the package contains—then at least it should be seen to take much tougher messages to Tehran on the nuclear question.
Western observers are increasingly concerned that TurkishIranian discussions do not have this quality. Turkish public, and even elite opinion may encourage Turkey’s leaders to talk about the desirability of a nuclear free Middle East, and to favor arguments about the equivalence of Israeli and Iranian nuclear weapons. In terms of Turkey’s own strategic interests, there is no equivalence at all. A nuclear Iran will spell trouble for Turkish security and undermine Turkey’s political objectives across multiple regions.
Dr. Ian O. Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF
Dr. Lesser is a GMF senior transatlantic fellow in Washington, DC, where he focuses on Mediterranean affairs, Turkey, and international security issues. Prior to joining GMF, he was vice president of the Pacific Council on International Policy and spent over a decade at the RAND Corporation. From 1994 to 1995, Dr. Lesser was a member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning staff.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.
About the On Turkey Series
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