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Ankara Quietly Weighing U.S. Nukes on Turkish Soil

NATO is currently undertaking a review of its nuclear posture, including the status of the tactical nuclear weapons that the U.S. maintains in five NATO countries, including Turkey. Some NATO members -- mainly the Baltics and ex-Warsaw Pact states -- want the U.S. to keep the nuclear weapons in Europe, while others (like Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway) are pushing for a dramatic move, including possibly completely removing the nukes from Europe. Turkey falls somewhere in between those countries, but more on the side of maintaining the nuclear weapons, writes Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, in a new paper "NATO, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control."

Turkey has hosted U.S. nuclear weapons since 1961, and currently at the Incirlik air base the U.S. has an unknown, but small, number of tactical B-61 nuclear bombs and fighter-bomber jets that can drop them. (The total number of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe is thought to be about 200, down from a Cold War number of 7,000.)

The question of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey is one that Ankara has been quiet about, and on which the government hasn't taken a public position. That's not too surprising: according to a 2006 survey, 77 percent of people in Turkey were "very or somewhat concerned about the presence of nuclear arms on their territory," the highest percentage in any of the five countries in which NATO hosts nuclear weapons. (The others are Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.) One would expect, too, differences of opinion between the country's current government (which has been reaching out to improve relations with Middle Eastern neighbors) and the military elite (with a strong Western orientation). And probably neither side sees anything to gain in bringing the issue out into the open.

So, the U.S. nuclear weapons are likely to remain in Turkey for the short term, Pifer says. But in the long term, Turkey could be under pressure: if the northern countries that currently host the weapons decide they don't want to do so any more -- which seems likely -- that would put Turkey in an uncomfortably isolated position, he writes:

Some analysts have suggested that consolidation of [nuclear weapons] at bases in Italy and Turkey might be a sensible step, at least on an interim basis. Those countries may be better able politically to continue basing nuclear weapons, and Iran’s nuclear effort and instability on the Alliance’s southern flank might offer a rationale. Rome, however, would be concerned about an outcome in which only Italy and Turkey served as basing countries. As for Ankara, “if Turkey is likely to be left as the only country, or one of only two countries, where U.S. nuclear weapons are still deployed … and no other NATO country is willing to assume the burden of hosting nuclear weapons, Turkey may very well insist that the weapons be sent back to the United States...”

The denuclearization of the northern tier will put political pressure on Italy and Turkey. One cannot say with certainty how Rome and Ankara would decide, but support for maintaining nuclear weapons in those countries would undoubtedly erode. There is a high probability that the two governments would also opt for withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons. Part of the cost is likely to be consequent resentment by some allies at others’ withdrawal from involvement in collective nuclear deterrence and a subsequent loss of confidence in Alliance commitments. NATO may be able to kick this can down the road but at some point could well find itself facing dramatic, unavoidable and possibly irreversible changes in its nuclear posture.

(That quote is from Mustafa Kibaroglu, in a comprehensive analysis of Turkey's role in hosting U.S. nukes here)

The review is due by the time of the next NATO summit, in 2012.

Ankara Quietly Weighing U.S. Nukes on Turkish Soil

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