Last week, Turkey and Japan announced a contracted deal for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to assemble Turkey’s second nuclear plant in Sinop. Surprisingly, the draft agreement contained a provision that permits Ankara to enrich uranium and extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel, which could in turn be processed to make weapons-grade material. In response to international scrutiny, a Japanese official issued a statement saying the enrichment clause was added by Turkey, while the Turkish Foreign Minister said, “the text of the nuclear agreement is aimed at all transactions to be used for peaceful purposes.” There are plenty of state signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that possess nuclear plants within their borders and that do not enrich or reprocess uranium such as Bulgaria and Estonia. This underscores how unusual and alarming it is that Turkey inserted the enrichment clause into their agreement with Japan.
Turkey’s interests in a nuclear program are likely influenced by Iran’s drive toward both nuclear weapons capability and regional hegemony. As predicted by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Foreign Policy Project (FPP), Iran’s unbridled nuclear program has left countries in an already volatile region feeling even more vulnerable and has encouraged horizontal proliferation throughout the Middle East. The report, The Price of Inaction: Analysis of Energy and Economic Effects of a Nuclear Iran, highlights that Saudi King Abdullah informed a senior American official that, “If Iran gets nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.” In 2012, senior Saudi officials said that, “it would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia].” With Iran approaching nuclear capability, this proliferation logic is trending across the region, despite the recently enacted interim deal.
It might seem strange that Turkey, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was friendly with Tehran until recently, would be threatened by a nuclear Iran. As mentioned in FPP’s most recent report, The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East, the need that majority Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, feel for their own nuclear deterrent is only fueled by Iran’s support for Shi’a parties and groups across the region. In particular, Iran’s engagement in the Syrian conflict on behalf of Bashir al-Assad in Syria, whom Turkey is committed to ousting from power, has put Ankara and Tehran on different sides of the increasingly dire sectarian struggle gripping the Middle East.
As long as Iran’s nuclear program, its hegemonic aspirations, and support for sectarian strife continue, its neighbors will follow and increasingly seek out nuclear deterrents of their own. Saudi Arabia has already declared its intentions. Now Turkey is working to secure a deal with the Japanese to enrich uranium. If a deal is reached, there is no doubt other states in the region, will follow a similar path to nuclear proliferation, with dangerous consequences for the entire region. For this reason, preventing a nuclear Iran remains the most pressing national security challenge facing the United States.