Turkey Has Long Had Nuclear Dreams

Ankara has been contemplating developing nuclear weapons since the 1960s.


In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his party that it is time for his country to acquire its own nuclear bomb.

Such a move would mark a sharp break from previous obligations by Turkey, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bars non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons. But this is not the first time that Turkey—which has played host to U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1950s—has craved its own nuclear weapons program.

As part of our Document of the Week series, Foreign Policy is posting a copy of a Sept. 26, 1966, memo describing to then-Ambassador Parker T. Hart a troubling conversation Clarence Wendel, the U.S. minerals attache at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, had with a “reliable” Turkish scientist on Turkey’s nuclear ambitions.

The memo, one of 20 previously declassified documents on nuclear weapons in Turkey compiled this week by the National Security Archive, claims the source disclosed that officials from Turkey’s General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration “had been asked to cooperate with General [Refik] Tulga and Professor Omer Inonu (Professor of Physics at METU) [Middle East Technical University] in a Turkish program to develop an ‘Atomic Bomb.’”

Wendel, according to the memo, had flagged a number of developments suggesting the claim may be credible, including: “Repeated Turkish assertions that a 200 mega-watt nuclear reactor is planned for Istanbul”; the stockpiling of reserves of 300 to 600 tons of uranium in low-grade ore deposits; and the “delaying and haggling tactics of the Turkish negotiators during discussions of the extension of the bilateral agreement on peaceful uses of atomic energy which primarily concerned the transfer of safeguards responsibility from the U.S.A. to the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Hart was skeptical that Turkey was bent on going nuclear, but he considered that it may have been preparing a contingency plan in the event that a nuclear arms race gained momentum in the region. They may be “simply putting themselves in a position to jump on the bandwagon in case there should be further serious breaks in the line against proliferation,” he wrote to John Howison, the Turkey country director in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.

Much of the history of the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in Turkey as part of a wider European deterrent force remains classified. But several documents compiled by the archive detail discussions related to the deployment of Honest John and Jupiter missiles in Turkey in 1959 and the early 1960s, and persistent concerns about the risk that they might be seized in the event that U.S. relations with a future Turkish leader deteriorated.

Relations with Turkey have been particularly strained in recent weeks, as Erdogan ordered an invasion of northern Syria in an attempt to crush Kurdish forces that have served as critical allies in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State terrorist movement. In response, officials from the U.S. State and Energy departments began a review of contingency plans for the possible evacuation of some 50 tactical nuclear weapons stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, according to a report in the New York Times.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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