[OPINION] Erdoğan inching closer to going nuclear

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ANKARA, TURKEY - APRIL 03 : Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) attend the groundbreaking ceremony of Akkuyu Nuclear Santral via video conference call, at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on April 03, 2018. Rasit Aydogan / Anadolu Agency

Abdullah Bozkurt

On July 2, 2018, immediately after a questionable win in national and presidential elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a law-decree establishing the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (Nükleer Düzenleme Kurumu, or NDK). The agency, demanded of Turkey by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for years, is supposed to be an independent body for verifying Turkey’s international commitments. Yet an examination of the decree and the changes approved reveal the agency has turned out to be totally subordinate to Erdoğan’s whims, which leads to further speculation as to how he wants to pursue nuclear capabilities.

Given the troubling pattern in which the Turkish president publicly started questioning Turkey’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Turkey is a party, and signalled his government’s ambition to procure more weapons and boost the country’s military industrial complex, there is enough reasonable doubt to be concerned where Turkey under Erdoğan’s watch is actually heading in an unstable region of the world. For obvious reasons, Erdoğan would not say out loud that he wants to acquire nuclear capabilities, but his associates have not shied away from entertaining the idea from time to time to prepare the public for such a contingency. Hayrettin Karaman, the Turkish president’s chief fatwa issuer and prominent ideologue for Turkish political Islamists, has already endorsed the idea that Turkey must have weapons of mass destruction for deterrence against the West.

His spokesman Ibrahim Kalin lamented how the nuclear powers do not want others to acquire the similar capabilities, effectively repeating what his boss said during last year’s summit of the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, which included countries like Iran. In March 2018 Erdoğan vowed to acquire advanced military hardware including nuclear missiles when comparing Turkey’s military capabilities to those of the US, saying that Turkey has God on its side and that his people march for martyrdom, unlike the Americans. In April 2018 Erdoğan slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while branding Israel as a terrorist state and warned that Netanyahu should not be bragging about possessing nuclear arms in his arsenal as they would be rendered ineffective when the time comes. Responding to criticism of Iran in a BBC interview in May 2018, Erdoğan defended Iran’s right to acquire nuclear weapons unless all other nuclear powers give up their arms, which was a complete reversal of traditional Turkish foreign policy. These are chilling statements from a man who commands NATO’s second largest army in terms of manpower and hosts US nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base.

Let’s look at the wording of the law to see what reasons we have to be concerned and skeptical about the Turkish president’s intentions. Decree-law No.702 specifically deals with the NDK, lists its mandate, scope of operations and how it will function. Judging from the wording of the decree, Erdoğan fully consolidated his grip on this newly established body just as he has done for much critical infrastructure in the country. For example, Article 4 states that all licensing, certificates, approvals and permit procedures are delegated to President Erdoğan. He is also expected to detail the scope and extent of obligations of any party that receives authorization to pursue nuclear power from the NDK. Article 7 states that the Turkish president will decide on the breadth and scope of the NDK’s jurisdiction, its mandate and obligations as well as in which areas it can operate. The five-member NDK executive board is to be appointed by Erdoğan, who will also select its president and vice president.

The law-decree provides broader exemptions for licensed nuclear energy dealers from dozens of laws that regulate various aspects of the administration such as building and zoning codes. The scope of environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports on radiation effects are to be drafted by the Ministry of Urban Affairs and Environment, but the reports must first be approved by the NDK. This is quite problematic and presents a conflict of interest considering that the NDK will be key in deciding how EIA reports on radiation impact will be assessed. The same issue can be seen in the transportation of nuclear materials. Although the Transportation Ministry will handle safety in such transfers, again the NDK must approve the rules of transfer, effectively giving veto power on any safety concerns that might be raised by transportation officials.

Article 7 also regulates the appointment of senior officials of the NDK and how it will function. The circular that will regulate all this is again issued by the office of President Erdoğan, who may decide to extend its mandate, delegate new tasks and sack any official he does not like. The NDK is allowed to hire foreign nationals to work for the agency, but how they will be paid and recruited will be determined by the president as well. Erdoğan is also trying to make sure there are no leaks from the NDK. The decree talks about lifetime non-disclosure agreements for employees of the NDK that are valid even after they leave the agency. The non-disclosure requirement also includes any contractor, supplier or service provider who works with the NDK. The gag measure covers employees of third parties as well.

In the event of the legal prosecution of NDK employees, Erdoğan has provided a broad impunity package for them as well. Any prosecution depends on the permission of the NDK, even though the judiciary and the executive branch are supposed to be independent of each other based on the principle of separation of powers. In other words, the NDK has veto power over the judiciary for any possible commission of a crime subject that is subject to judicial scrutiny. Article 9 of the decree exempts the selection of senior staff from a publicly held competitive entry exam for government jobs, suggesting that Erdoğan is intent on hand picking senior officials of the NDK without going through the merit-based nationwide exam.

Article 10 provides yet another veil of secrecy for NDK operations because it grants the agency an exemption from public procurement requirements, waiving the obligation to go through the public tender process or open competitive bidding system when spending taxpayers’ money. Article 11 of the decree sees the establishment of a joint stock company, the Nuclear Technical Support Corporation (Nukleer Teknik Destek Anonim Sirketi, or NÜTED). Although this company is financed with TL 1 million from government funds as seed money and the NDK will hold at least 51 percent of its shares, it is not subject to laws governing public corporations and agencies but is rather governed by corporate law. Yet, Erdoğan will decide on how NÜTED operates in Turkey and abroad, what fields it will cover and more.

Once it becomes fully functional, the NDK will have 319 people on its payroll not including third parties, contractors and employees of the affiliated private company NÜTED. The bylaws that determine how the NDK will function were issued by Erdoğan’s office on July 15, 2018, indicating further problematic areas where the agency is exempted from effective administrative and judicial review. The bylaws that were covered in Chapter 54 from Article 785 through 792 show it has become the sole authority in the export and import of radioactive materials, control of dual use goods that are subject to the NPT and the establishment, use and control of nuclear sites. It will also coordinate IAEA inspection visits and accompany inspectors when they come to Turkey to verify compliance with Turkey’s international obligations.

Given how the nuclear regulatory agency was set up from both the presidential decree and circular, the Erdoğan government has turned the new agency into a partisan hack that will only do the bidding of one man who has shown determination and willingness to break away from the decades-long traditional policies of Turkey both in security and foreign policy. He has a perverted religious conviction and his own chief cleric’s approval to obtain weapons of mass destruction, state resources at his disposal and a broad mandate to do as he wants with no check on his near-absolute power. I suppose for a man who has armed and financed jihadist groups in Turkey’s region as proxy groups, which would have been unthinkable only a decade ago for observers of Turkey, venturing into what Iran’s mullahs and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un have attempted in order to blackmail the international community is not a far-fetched idea.

It would be better to err on the side of caution rather than take a chance on Erdoğan’s intentions. When he first came to power in November 2002, many thought he had moderated his views, reformed himself and become a newborn democrat. Roughly a decade later, when he had consolidated enough power, he showed his true colors of being a vicious autocrat who has locked up some 70,000 people including 242 journalists within the last two years alone. I would rather stick to the motto of fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

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