‘Mr. Erdogan has settled your bill’

Jerusalem Post, 30/11

Turkey’s Burgeoning Strategic Relationship with Pakistan raises Nuclear Concerns

President Recep Tayepp Erdogan of Turkey, in an address on September 4 this year to his ruling AKP party’s governing body, spoke openly of his country’s nuclear ambitions.

“Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. I, however, am not supposed to have missiles with nuclear warheads. This, I cannot accept,” the Turkish leader said.  ‘And right next to us, there is Israel, right? With everything (it has), it is frightening (other countries)”.

Turkey already has the major elements for acquiring a nuclear capability – rich uranium deposits, and the TR-1 and TR-2 Research Reactors maintained by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority.

The greatest challenge in acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity is obtaining fuel. A civilian nuclear power program, as in the Iranian case, can  often serve as a ruse for making that fuel, and building a clandestine nuclear arsenal.

Turkey is currently building its first major reactor to generate electricity with Russian help. The Russian Rosatom company in September won a $20 billion contract to build four civilian nuclear reactors in Akkuyu, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Turkey, meanwhile, has over the decades shown great interest in learning the formidable skills needed to purify uranium as well as to turn it into plutonium, the two main fuels needed.

Ankara’s strong and burgeoning strategic ties to Pakistan are causing international concern regarding the possibility of a transfer of nuclear weapons knowledge between the two countries.

Turkey already has the will and the raw materials.  This knowledge is the factor it currently lacks.

In the 2000s, Turkey was a covert industrial hub for the nuclear black market of rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan’s network offered buyers a menu of both technical expertise and the materials to make a bomb. The electronics parts of the  centrifuges, the most important items in this covert trade,  were from Turkey, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

Centrifuges, whose name has become familiar to the broader public because of the Iranian nuclear effort, spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium. Their output, depending on the level of enrichment, can fuel reactors or nuclear weapons.

According to “Nuclear Black Markets” a report on the A.Q. Khan network by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, companies in Turkey aided the covert effort by importing materials from Europe, making centrifuge parts and shipping finished products to customers – Iran, Libya and North Korea.

A riddle to this day is whether the Khan network had a fourth customer. A former German defence official quoted in the New York Times on October 24 this year noted that Turkey could possess “a considerable number of centrifuges of unknown origin.”

The idea that Ankara could be the fourth customer “does not appear far-fetched,” he added.

These concerns regarding a possible emergent Turkey-Pakistan nuclear link exist within the context of an acknowledged emergent strategic alliance between these countries.

Turkey and Pakistan’s burgeoning defense relationship is a matter of record. It has experienced a sharp upward trajectory since current Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power.

Recently, Pakistan’s naval ship PNS Alamgir and LRMP P3C aircraft participated in the Multinational exercise “Dogu Akendiz 2019” in South-West Turkey. An additional bilateral exercise took place earlier this year in the Indian Ocean.

In October, the Pakistan Navy commissioned a 17,000-ton fleet tanker that it has built in collaboration with a Turkish defense contractor, STM.

In July 2018, Ankara won a multi-billion dollar tender to supply four corvettes to the Pakistan Navy, a deal dubbed as the biggest export for Turkey’s defense industry in history. As per the agreement, two ships will be built in Istanbul and two others in Karachi.

Growing Turkish naval power is an emergent concern also for Israel, given Turkish ambitions regarding natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean and specifically in Cyprus.

But maritime affairs are only one part of the picture.

During the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Pakistan displayed its unequivocal support for Erdoğan. In a show of solidarity, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called the embattled Turkish President in the midst of the coup and visited the Turkish parliament shortly after it was put down.

Following the 2016 coup attempt, for which Erdoğan blamed Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement, the Turkish leader began to demand that other countries follow his lead by branding Gülen and his supporters as terrorists and shutting down their schools.

The government of Pakistan also responded by refusing to renew the work and residence visas of the Pak-Turk schools’ Turkish staff. Some were refused entry to other countries and subsequently returned to Turkey to face indefinite imprisonment.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court later ordered the government to designate the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) a terror group.

In February 2018, Turkey together with Saudi Arabia and China blocked a move by the U.S. and the U.K to put Pakistan on a list of countries which have failed to stem terror financing.

The Financial Action task Force (FATF), a global terror-financing watchdog, put Islamabad on its gray list after Saudi Arabia and China did not oppose the U.S move in June 2018. Turkey, however, was the only country that stood alongside Pakistan and opposed the move.

Pakistan, in return, launched a “support Turkish Lira” campaign across the country by buying the Turkish currency after the U.S. imposed unilateral sanctions on two Turkish ministers in August amid a row over the detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

Erdogan is the only foreign dignitary to have addressed a joint session of the Pakistani parliament three times. As Prime Minister, he addressed the Pakistani lawmakers in 2009 and 2012, and as President in 2016.

Air power is also part of the story. Turkey is selling its T129 Advanced Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance(ATAK) multi-role combat helicopters to Islamabad. Pakistan is set to receive 30 T129 ATAK  helicopters from Turkey under a deal finalized in July 2018. Ankara is, meanwhile, buying MFI-17 Super Mushshak aircraft from Pakistan.

The flourishing defense relationship – with its possible nuclear connection – in turn takes place within a broader context.  Turkey under Erdogan is embarked on a historic journey away from its former orientation towards Europe and the west.  Its face is now turned toward the Islamic world, and the path of political Islam.  The advisability of this course is of course radically questionable.  But once decided upon, Islamabad becomes an obvious, natural ally and a model for emulation.

In the run-up to Turkey’s April 2017 election, the AKP ran a commercial that fantasized about Turkey’s popularity in a grateful Sunni world under Erdogan’s rule. In the scene depicting Pakistan, a Turkish couple sits in a café. The manager hands the waiter a note, which he then hands to the couple. “Our treat to Turkey,” the note reads. The confused couple looks up at the beaming Pakistani waiter who says “Mr. Erdogan has settled your bill.”

The true relationship between Islamabad and Ankara is somewhat more reciprocal than in this Erdogan-centric depiction.  It is also a lot less pacific and harmless. Israel should be paying close attention.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is a the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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