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Is Erdogan’s Turkey after nuclear weapons?

Turkey is not forthcoming on the details of the deals it struck with Russia & Japan on building two nuclear power plants

Considering the fact Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been emulating the Iranian model for some time, from investing in proxy groups for leverage and regime change to exporting the ruling party’s Islamist ideology overseas, one should not be surprised to find out that a clandestine program to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) including a nuclear device for deterrence is actually in the works.

If it is any indication, the deliberate campaign to push the issue for general acceptance in Turkish society by key people close to Erdoğan must be chilling for Turkey watchers who have grown quite uneasy about the future direction of this strategically located NATO ally country. Hayrettin Karaman, the Turkish president’s chief fatwa (religious edict) giver, provided not only his blessing for the government to acquire WMDs but also encouraged Turkish leadership to do so. Karaman, considered to be the Turkish equivalent of imam Yousef Qardawi — the Egyptian cleric and spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who approves of suicide bombings and armed rebellion in Syria — and a prominent figure among Turkish Islamists, wrote in the Yeni Şafak daily on March 16, 2017 that “we need to consider producing these weapons [WMDs] rather than purchasing them without losing any time and with no regard to words [of caution] and hindrance from the West.”

Erdoğan has often sought this cleric’s help when he wanted to promote an issue for public discussion, providing a religious legitimacy for what he plans to do. In fact, Karaman has issued religious opinions justifying the unprecedented crackdown the government launched against the Gülen movement and other opposition and critical groups. He declared Turks who voted against Erdoğan to be un-Islamic. Karaman was among the early critics of efforts at interfaith dialogue championed by Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, and Erdoğan eventually blurted out that he was of the same opinion, on Nov.17, 2016, during a visit to Pakistan, where he said interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity was impossible and ruled out dialogue with the Vatican.

Therefore, whatever Karaman says cannot be brushed aside without considering how much weight it carries in the eyes of Turkey’s Islamist rulers. His narrative has often resulted in policy actions by the Erdoğan government, and one certainly cannot take a chance on the alarming WMD proposal he offered. “Let’s invent [these WMDs] and balance out [the power of the West],” he wrote, stressing that Turkey must acquire lethal weapons that are more powerful than or equal to those of the enemy, which is the West and the non-Muslim world.

The second indication that Turkish leaders may be up to something on WMDs has come from a high-profile Islamist journalist who often accompanied the Turkish president during state visits and traveled with him on the presidential plane. İbrahim Karagül, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Şafak, a mouthpiece rag for Erdoğan, wrote on March 27, 2017, 11 days after Karaman voiced his opinion, that Turkey must take extraordinary measures including acquiring nuclear weapons capability against the Western Crusaders who are waging war on Turkey. He held the view that Turkey must mobilize all Muslim communities and countries that it can enlist as allies and put up a resistance to this onslaught from the Western powers.

In fact, when Şahin Alpay, a veteran author and professor of political science, wrote in the Zaman daily on April 14, 2015 that the Erdoğan government was after nuclear technology to acquire weapons under the guise of obtaining peaceful nuclear energy reactors, it was Karagül who reacted to him first. The government was not pleased with Alpay’s reasonable warning that nuclear power technology could create a headache for Turkey in the future. A year after his article appeared in the newspaper, Zaman, the most highly circulated daily in Turkey, was unlawfully seized by the Erdoğan government. This well-respected 73-year-old man was arrested in July 2016 and has been in jail for a year on trumped-up charges of coup plotting, a crime he has consistently opposed for his entire career. Erdoğan’s office also mobilized its thousands-strong troll army on Twitter to bash him while defending the acquisition of nuclear weapons technology.

The campaign that supports the acquisition of nuclear weapons is still ongoing among Erdoğan proponents. Writing in the pro-Erdoğan Milat daily, columnist Galip İlhaner stated on July 25, 2017 that Turkey must acquire nuclear weapons in cooperation with Pakistan. He posted a message on his Twitter account on July 30 saying that the real reason for the ouster of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over his family’s unexplained wealth was to prevent Pakistan from transferring nuclear weapons to Turkey. Sabri İşbilen, a writer for the Islamist Diriliş Postası daily who has followers in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), wrote on Oct. 27, 2016 that Pakistan, Turkey and Qatar have been working on joint weapons enhancement capabilities including nuclear. Conspiracies like this may sound far-fetched and difficult to prove; yet, there are dozens of government propagandists uttering these narratives on public platforms. Unfortunately, there is certainly a growing constituency in Turkey that is ready to believe these stories.

I’m no expert on the technical aspects of nuclear technology and know little about civilian and military nuclear technology. There have been arguments on both sides of the aisle advocating opposing views when it comes to Turkey’s real ambitions. One position as advocated by Hans Rühle, former head of the planning staff in the German Ministry of Defense, in a National Interest article on Sept. 22, 2015, was that Turkey is positioning itself similarly to Iran in its leveraging of civilian nuclear power for potential nuclear weapons breakout capability. The article created a lot of noise and elicited a response from the Turkish government that rejected it as slander. Others like Philip Baxter, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, challenged Rühle’s arguments on several points, some technical, that I have no qualifications to question, but they sounded convincing.

But one assertion that was made by Baxter on a security basis begs further questioning. He said: “Turkey’s external security outlook and alliance structure are also dramatically different than that of Iran’s,” stressing that “Turkey is a long-standing member of the NATO alliance. The Article V security guarantee ensures Turkey’s existential security.” Well, that would have been true a couple years ago, but today the Erdoğan government considers the US and other NATO allies to be hostile nations, undermines the US-led anti-ISIL coalition battles in Syria’s north, blocks NATO cooperation with partners such as Austria and has forced German troops to withdraw from Turkish bases after having granted access only a few years ago. Turkey is increasingly becoming an unpredictable and less reliable ally. Erdoğan himself has been busy bullying, bashing and lashing out at NATO allies in his public speeches, fueling an anti-US and anti-NATO frenzy in the 80-million-strong predominantly Muslim nation.

What is more, Turkey is not really forthcoming on the details of the deals it struck with Russia and Japan on building two nuclear power plants in Turkey and provides little clarity on what it really hopes to accomplish. Opposition lawmakers’ questions in Parliament on these deals were either not responded to, in violation of parliamentary by-laws, or were given an answer that lacked substance. Main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Aytuğ Atıcı, who posed several questions to the energy minister on deals to build nuclear power plants, believes the Erdoğan government is really going after weapons grade technology. Hayrettin Kılıç, a US-based nuclear physicist who opposed the Turkish government building nuclear power plants, also said he believes the real goal of Turkey is to manufacture nuclear weapons rather than produce electricity.

Whatever the real motivation that drives Erdoğan to build not two but three nuclear power plants with technology transfers and local manufacturing capabilities, there are reasonable grounds to become suspicious of Turkish government behavior under Erdoğan’s leadership. The fact that he brought in his son-in-law Berat Albayrak to be in charge of those nuclear deals suggests that Erdoğan is keen to keep the details of these negotiations close to the chest by having his family members oversee the negotiations.

Turkey is no longer the same country we used to know, and a lot has changed since Erdoğan consolidated his power base and started dismantling democratic institutions. He has built an Islamist dictatorship where the rule of law no longer applies, fundamental rights and freedoms are violated on a large scale and democratic principles such as separation of powers, accountability and checks and balances are no longer respected. Turkey as we know it never ventured into regime change before the Syrian crisis started in 2011, or armed and funded jihadists to destabilize neighboring countries and never engaged in exporting political Islamist ideology to other countries including to Europe and North America. Perhaps a change that we never thought possible in acquiring nuclear weapons in the face of Turkey’s strong commitments to international treaties may also be on the way. It would be wise to be better safe than sorry by holding Erdoğan’s Turkey up to closer scrutiny.

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