Iran's Nuclear Diplomacy: A Response from Turkey

Turkey is wary of Iran’s nuclear programme and its development of ballistic missiles. Whilst Ankara pursues dialogue with Tehran,Turkey will also put in place conventional assets to help defend Turkish territory.

Turkey Flag 2Turkey has been making preparations to defend against ballistic-missile and WMD-armed threats in the Middle East since the mid-1990s. Ankara’s policy vis-à-vis Iran has remained consistent and Turkish policy-makers have given no indication that they intend to develop nuclear weapons. As the previous chapter indicated, Turkey would likely respond to a nuclear Iran by seeking ‘recourse to established and trusted alliance structures’, and ‘only then [would it] examine what would be costly and severely disruptive indigenous options’. Turkey is already taking steps to develop indigenous capabilities in response to the threat of proliferation in the Middle East, but remains committed to lending whatever support it can to the diplomatic track to ensure that such a reality never comes to fruition.

Turkey and Iran have an incentive to co-operate on numerous issues, despite their disagreement about the latter’s potential nuclearisation. As such, Ankara is likely to continue to embrace dialogue with the Islamic Republic, while also continuing its programme to develop conventional weapons with which to defend Turkey from ballistic-missile attack.

Turkey Prepares for Proliferation

Turkish and Iranian economic co-operation has moved in parallel to Ankara’s efforts to develop the necessary capabilities to defend itself from ballistic missiles and WMD. Turkey has paired these efforts with calls for the universalisation of non-proliferation norms and the establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (MEWMDFZ).

Yet Ankara is careful to note that any such zone would not include Turkey. Turkish policy-makers quietly argue that the seventy or so American nuclear weapons deployed in Ankara are necessary for deterrence and help to ensure that the NATO burden-sharing principle remains firmly in place.

Nevertheless, Turkey continues to argue that the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue is through sustained dialogue. Ankara argues that coercive diplomacy undermines Iranian moderates and helps to empower the hardliners. Thus, as an extension of Turkey’s belief in the necessity of the diplomatic approach, Ankara has steadfastly refused to support military strikes against Iran. Turkey argues that such action would only serve to strengthen elements within Iran that may covet nuclear weapons. Thus, while military action could slow the Iranian programme down, it would, in the long term, run counter to the goal of ensuring that the programme remains peaceful. In such a scenario, Ankara – which is well within range of Iranian missiles – would bear the brunt of the negative consequences associated with military action.

In supporting dialogue, therefore, Turkey’s aim is to ensure that military strikes are averted, while also taking steps to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Yet, unlike Israel or other Gulf countries, Turkey has expressed confidence in the IAEA’s ability to ensure non-diversion for a weapons programme.

Preparing for the Worst

Nevertheless, Turkey’s armed forces and civilian leadership have embarked on a focused and sustained programme to develop both active and passive defences against missile attack. Turkey’s most recent pursuit of a ballistic-missile-defence system coincided with the Obama administration’s announced plans for the development of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) – a missile-defence system that relies on SM-3 missile interceptors deployed on Aegis missile destroyers in the Mediterranean.1 However, in order to ensure complete territorial coverage, Turkey has opted to procure a Chinese ballistic-missile-defence system and to develop its own low- and medium-altitude air-defence systems.

Turkey has paired these plans with offensive systems that could target ballistic missiles before they are launched. In 2006, Turkey launched an indigenous effort to develop a cruise missile capable of targeting ground-based and deeply buried targets.2 These systems are intended to act in concert with a slew of sensors that Ankara aims to deploy in or around 2023 to aid in targeting and early warning. These systems, while independent, are intended to complement NATO security guarantees.

Thus, the assertion above that ‘Turkey would respond to Iranian nuclearisation in a measured way’ and ‘would primarily invoke its pre-existing relationships with NATO and the US rather than rushing to indigenous nuclear capability’ is largely in line with Turkey’s current approach to the Iranian nuclear issue. Yet what is missing in the chapter is a discussion of Ankara’s concerted efforts to develop defences against ballistic-missile and WMD threats. Ankara is intent on pursuing – but not articulating – a comprehensive approach to the proliferation issue that includes an emphasis on diplomacy, while also taking steps to have a robust defence in place should those efforts fail.

Continuity: Ankara and the ‘What If’ Scenario

Turkey’s approach to the Iran nuclear issue, therefore, is based on a multi-year policy aimed at defusing tensions and putting in place conventional assets to help defend Turkish territory. The decisions to pursue these policies were not a result of the disclosures made about the Iranian nuclear programme in 2003, but were put in place shortly after the Cold War, in response to the generic threat of regional proliferation.

Ankara’s policy is framed by its sustained interest in maintaining relations with Iran. As early as 1980, Turkey made clear that it was prepared to shun US pressure and pursue its own energy interests with the Islamic Republic. This dynamic continues. Turkey is therefore likely to continue to try to compartmentalise its dealings with the Islamic Republic. On the security side, however, Turkey will continue to be pulled in two different directions: on the one hand, Ankara and Tehran have an incentive to co-operate against the Kurdish nationalists; yet, on the other, Turkey is wary of Iran’s nuclear programme and its development of ballistic missiles.

Moving forward, Turkey is likely to continue with its missile programmes and, at some point in the future, will have a limited capability to attack ballistic missiles and command-and-control centres in the region. Yet these efforts will continue to be framed by Turkey’s participation in NATO and rely heavily on the collective defence arrangement. Ankara, therefore, will continue to have an incentive to support the forward deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe.

Critically, these efforts do not include the pursuit of an independent nuclear-weapons programme. In fact, such a move would be wildly out of character, given Turkey’s historical approach to the threats posed by WMD and ballistic missiles in the region. Ankara is likely to continue to pursue its own conventional capabilities, rely on NATO guarantees and embrace dialogue.

Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at RUSI. He is also the nonproliferation programme manager at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, where he works on security and proliferation issues in the Middle East. He is currently a PhD Candidate at King’s College London, researching Iranian and Turkish nuclear decision-making. He has written extensively on Turkish politics and regional proliferation, publishing in scholarly journals and print media, including Foreign Policy, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, National Interest, and World Politics Review.

Notes and References

1.       White House, ‘Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy:  A “Phased, Adaptive Approach” for Missile Defense in Europe’, Office of the Press Secretary, 17 September 2009, <>, accessed 2 December 2013.

2.       Monch Turkiye, ‘KALE Aero Will Develop Indigenous Turbojet Engine for SOM ALCM’, <>, accessed 4 September 2013; Umit Enginsoy, ‘Turkey Aims to Increase Ballistic Missile Ranges’, Hurriyet Daily News, 1 February 2012; Savunma Sanayii Araþtýrma ve Geliþtirme Enstitüsü [Defence Industries Research and Development Institute],  SOM, Modular Stand-Off Missile’, <;jsessionid=934414917275A4BAFC2E11DF28868402?ot=1&pid=547&sid=1380>, accessed 4 September 2013. 



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