I attended an interesting meeting today that Flynt Leverett hosted with two high-powered Turkish officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — Ibrahim Kalin, chief foreign policy adviser to the Prime Minister, and a Suat Kiniklioglu, a Turkish MP who serves as deputy chairman of foreign affairs for the party.
It was a very interesting meeting with two very sharp guys. And it was, with a few exceptions, on the record. The most interesting part, to me, concerned the role of nuclear weapons in Turkish security.
Kalin reiterated that “Turkey wants a nuclear-free Middle East, and this applies to Iran as well as other countries suspected of having nuclear bombs.”
This is a very sensible position, but — since the two powers in “the region” that have nuclear weapons are Israel and NATO — it also provided an opening to ask about where Ankara was on those U.S. nuclear weapons believed to be stationed at Incirlik Airbase in Turkey. (For a nice background on the current debate, see: Alexandra Bell and Benjamin Loehrke, The status of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey, November 23, 2009.)
I asked about the few hundred nuclear weapons that the United States forward-deploys in five NATO member-states. (I carefully avoided specifying Turkey as one of the five.) I noted that US Air Forces-Europe (USAFE) would love to bring those weapons home, but that in Washington the conventional wisdom is that they must remain forward-deployed to assure Turkey.
So, I asked, does Ankara’s commitment to a nuclear weapon-free Middle East mean that the Turkish Government would support withdrawal of the weapons now or possible under some future agreement?
Kalin answered the question. He began, as he should, with all the standard things: That it was up to the United States, that this is a conversation that should occur within NATO, Turkey’s commitment to a nuclear-weapon free region was a serious proposal, etc.
Then he said something remarkable: As for his own personal opinion, Kalin said, Turkey “would not insist” that NATO retain forward-deployed nuclear weapons. Conventional forces are sufficient, he added, to meet Turkish security needs. Kiniklioglu didn’t flinch.
That’s pretty remarkable. Normally, when asked about forward-deployed nuclear weapons, a foreign officials will assess the condition of his shoeshine and then mumble something into his tie.
A little data point for the next time someone asserts that we can’t withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, lest the Turks build nuclear weapons.