Iranian airplanes carrying nuclear weapons-related technological equipment have been destroyed, nuclear laboratories have been blown up, imported equipment has been delivered to Iran in broken pieces, and scientists have been murdered. But the greatest blow thus far to Iran’s program came from a computer virus called Stuxnet, a joint US-Israeli venture. First an exact replica of the Iranian facilities was built by the Israelis in the desert at the Dimona nuclear site. This virus targeted command centers run by Siemens computers, which the Iranians were using to enrich uranium. The virus had unprecedented strength, with the ability to penetrate all Siemens systems worldwide, though it would only be active in the process of uranium enrichment. The virus made the tubes inside protective cylinders suddenly rotate very rapidly, ultimately breaking them apart.
It was in the latter half of 2009 that Stuxnet was released. Then, in the first months of 2010, the enrichment process in Iran began to falter. Thousands of tubes shattered due to Stuxnet, thus drastically slowing down its uranium enrichment program. By the end of the year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Tehran’s nuclear program had been set back many years. Meir Dagan, then head of Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad, also said that Iran would not be able to produce nuclear weapons before 2015. America and Israel believed that their computer virus had accomplished what many had expected a military attack to do. This also explains why Iran’s nuclear program was put on the geopolitical back burner until mid-2011.
Turkey’s role as mediator
In May 2010, as a result of Turkey’s mediation, Iran accepted an exchange of the low-grade uranium it then possessed. But although the US had agreed to an identical exchange just the previous November, this time it refused. This change of mind was almost certainly connected to the Stuxnet virus. At the end of 2009 it was still unclear what the virus would achieve. But by the next May, even though the public was in the dark, Washington surely knew the damage had been done by the virus, and knew that such an exchange would be to Iran’s advantage this time around. Moreover, from the other side of the fence, this is probably the same reason that Iran was ready to accept an offer that it had rejected just six months earlier.
As it happened, however, the West was once again mistaken in its analyses. Iran was able to quickly shake off the effects of Stuxnet. By mid-2011, Iran was able to run even more centrifuge tubes, in more developed models, which revolved even faster. An unexpected consequence of all these attempts to derail its nuclear program was that Iran simply gained more experience and skill with nuclear technology.
To produce nuclear weapons using uranium, the most critical part of the process is to enrich it to weapons grade, around 90 percent purity. Iran has now succeeded in the most difficult steps: obtaining uranium enriched to at least 20 percent. Getting 90 percent enrichment in a few months no longer appears very difficult. In the meantime, there is some evidence indicating that Iran has initiated work to assemble nuclear warheads. Western countries are now planning to try to stop Iran with an oil embargo. If that doesn’t do the job, the West may come to the conclusion that it has no choice but a military operation.
An attack on Iran?
It is known that the Obama administration does not look warmly on an attack on Iran, and that it opposed the idea of Israel single-handedly carrying out such an assault on more than one occasion. The biggest supporter of a military solution is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who obviously hopes for an attack sometime this summer or fall, capitalizing on the competitive atmosphere of the US presidential campaign, and pressure Obama may possibly be facing. But even in Israel many stand opposed to an attack, including influential defense and security establishment figures, some prominent right-wing politicians and even members of the current government. For instance, after stepping down from the helm of Mossad, Dagan began an unusual media campaign. He publicly argued that attacking Iran would be “stupid,” and would cause a strategic catastrophe for Israel, leading to years of chaos in the region, along with adding legitimacy to Iran’s alleged reasons for developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, he contended, Israel lacks the military capability for an effective strike against Iran without help from the US.
What should Turkey do?
Even if a military attack on Iran — which currently seems unlikely — were to occur, Iran now possesses enough know-how that the production of nuclear weapons is ultimately only a matter of time and political will. In such a case, Turkey will face a thorny question: Should Turkey also have nuclear capabilities?
Nuclear weapons were used for the first and last time by the US during World War II, on two Japanese cities. In the decades since, the huge effect of nuclear weapons on the strategic balance of global politics has come not from their use but rather their mere possession. According to the dictates of international strategy, the power of a country is, until it is used, the power that others assume it has. During the more than half-century of the Cold War, the single greatest weight on the strategic balance between the two blocs was the Soviet Union’s deployment of nuclear weapons.
A sound strategy, one with a good chance of standing the test of time, should take into consideration what might look like unthinkable options. Strategic efforts should aim at avoiding surprises. History has seen many victories and defeats emerge from options that once seemed totally unlikely. The winners have often been those who were able to think outside the box, while the losers were undercut by their inability to do the same. Politics and diplomacy, in protecting the interests of a country and even its survival, must always run reasonable, even calculated, risks. A policy aiming for zero risk is a policy of impotence. The risks that diplomacy can run are proportional to the margin of safety enjoyed by a country. Additionally, the risks faced by a country tend to rise as the power and associated ambiguities of the other sides also rise.
If and when Iran conducts its first nuclear test and continues to build up a nuclear arsenal, this would deeply upset the strategic geopolitical balance and psychology in this region. In fact, what follows would be unlike anything ever seen in the Middle East. Israel currently maintains a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear weapons, to keep the world guessing what conditions would lead to their use. If Iran also finally manages to obtain nuclear weapons, it will probably take a similar path. Such developments in turn would sow ambiguity even denser than that of the tense Cold War period.
If Iran does go nuclear, the US will most likely offer its nuclear protection umbrella to a number of countries in the region, including Turkey. For Ankara to accept such an offer would be reasonable only if it doesn’t relinquish its own nuclear option. Otherwise Turkey could be, as circumstances develop, a strategic hostage to the US in the Middle East. Turkey has a legitimate right to consider all future possibilities. For instance, the US might choose to withdraw into its own shell, pulling back beyond the Atlantic. Or a new administration may emerge in Washington under the influence of the extremist pro-Israel and evangelical Christian groups. And if the current Iranian regime changes or even if it doesn’t, there is also the possibility — currently a remote one, to be sure — that Washington and Tehran could build an alliance of sorts. Each of these possibilities may force the need for nuclear capability for Turkey.
EU membership and the nuclear option
European Union membership would certainly reduce Turkey’s risks, and largely eliminate the nuclear option. The opposite scenario, in which Turkey’s EU membership prospects die and Iran builds up a nuclear arsenal, would pose a troublesome situation. In that case, to avoid getting stuck in a bottleneck of heightened risks, Turkey would need to seriously consider developing its own nuclear capability. To date, the relationship between a possible nuclear option for Turkey and its EU prospects has not received a great deal of attention. Yet this relationship ought to be handled carefully.
For the time being, Ankara could initiate a well thought-out and comprehensive nuclear technology program. It should aim to develop its technological know-how, essentially in pilot plant capacities for nuclear fission chain reaction materials. This could encompass various methods, including centrifuge and laser technologies. And finally, Turkey must also improve the range of its guided missiles.
By Haluk Özdalga