Iran-Turkey division over nuclear programme deepens
Recent tensions with Iran resonate with public, but a Turkish nuclear weapons programme remains extremely unlikely.
By Aaron Stein for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 09/04/12
After nearly two years of warmth and amicability, Turkish-Iranian relations have frayed of late over differing strategic interests in the Middle East and mounting Western pressure over Iran's nuclear programme.
More than half of respondents of a recent poll said Turkey should pursue a nuclear weapons programme if Iran develops one. [Reuters]
The two sides have thrown their political support behind differing factions in Iraq and Syria, while Turkey and the United States have patched up their previously strained relationship. This has exposed the fragile underbelly of what had been a rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and Turkey.
Hugh Pope, the Turkey-Cyprus Project director at the International Crisis Group, said that the period of remarkable warmth between 2009 and 2011 should be looked at as an anomaly rather than the norm.
"You have this sense that Iran is drawing Turkey into a sectarian arm wrestling match in Iraq and Syria," Pope said.
The ongoing tensions come against the backdrop of plans for a new round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran on Friday (April 13th) and Saturday.
Turkey has worked to facilitate dialogue, and remains committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute. But while still supportive of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear energy programme, Turkey has noticeably tamped down its public support for the Islamic Republic.
Under heightened Western sanctions targeting Iran's energy and financial sector, economic relations have also taken a hit, most recently with the announcement Turkey would cut oil purchases from Iran by 20%.
In turn, Iran has shunned Turkey by requesting that the venue for the upcoming nuclear talks changed from Istanbul to more friendly venues in China, Iraq or Lebanon. Angered by the Iranian rebuke, Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters "[Iran] needs to be honest" and stop haggling about the venue.
Not only is there a loss of confidence at the state level, but there are signs that the diplomatic back and forth have had an effect on the Turkish public's perception of Iran.
The Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), an independent think tank in Istanbul, recently conducted a poll that asked, "In reaction to a possible threat from a nuclear armed Iran, should Turkey develop its own nuclear weapons or rely on NATO's protection?"
Fifty-four percent of respondents supported Turkey's nuclear armament if Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon, 8.2% trusted NATO's nuclear umbrella, and 34.8% said under no circumstances should Turkey develop nuclear weapons.
EDAM Chairman Sinan Ulgen told SES Türkiye "The poll results belie the government rhetoric that Iran is not a threat."
While not surprised people instinctively think that the best policy would be to match a nuclear Iran, Ulgen questions whether the respondents considered the potential negative consequences of a Turkish nuclear weapons programme.
Philipp Bleek, a fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, questions whether the poll results have any resonance amongst Turkish policymakers.
"Turkish policymakers evince little enthusiasm for launching their own nuclear weapons programme. They point out that Turkey is not only a NATO member, but has US nuclear weapons deployed on its soil. And while they regard a nuclear-armed Iran as undesirable, they point out that relations between Ankara and Tehran are at worst strained as opposed to overtly antagonistic," Bleek said.
Bleek said that even if Turkish policymakers were to hedge their bets and secretly keep their options open for a future nuclear weapons program, progress would be limited by Turkey's "modest capabilities" in nuclear technology.
International and regional adherence to nonproliferation norms is a critical component of Turkey's national security strategy. Turkey is a long-standing member of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a signatory to the Additional Protocol, and a voluntary member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.
In this context, Ulgen said Turkish policymakers should take advantage of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago to better calibrate its specific deterrence needs with those of the Alliance and do a better job of explaining NATO's critical role in Turkish defense planning at home.