By Kerry Givens, Transatlantic Security Analyst
Next month, the P5+1 and Iran are expected to meet again to discuss the latter’s ongoing nuclear program – a meeting that many argue could be the last before Iran crosses the Rubicon and acquires a nuclear weapon. So far, NATO has largely steered clear of the issue even though a nuclear Iran could compromise the security of its members by posing a direct threat and triggering a regional nuclear arms race. For the time being, this may be the best move; after all, deeper NATO involvement would risk opening an intra-Alliance rift with Turkey, which is more economically dependent on Iran than other member states. Yet as Iran’s nuclear program progresses, the time is quickly approaching when Turkey and NATO may be forced to clarify their positions.
Turkey’s size, geographic location, and political system have led many to argue that it acts as a “bridge” between East and West. This is arguably significant due to the cultural barriers that exist between the West and developing nations in the Middle East. Turkey’s membership in NATO bolsters its military credibility and allows it to influence its neighbors in ways that are helpful to the Alliance, as well as its regional neighbors. At the same time, it has maintained good relations with Iran since 1979, when the latter declared itself an Islamic republic. Reflecting its position as a “bridge,” the Turkish government agreed to host a NATO early warning radar station while arguing that Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and refusing to join U.S. and EU sanctions.
The controversy over Iran’s nuclear program centers in particular on Iran’s failure to declare sensitive enrichment and reprocessing activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), not to mention the five United Nations Security Council Resolutions directing Iran to stop its uranium enrichment process and comply with IAEA inspections. In addition, Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon is of great concern and can be divided into three main categories: short-range ballistic missiles (up to 1,000 kilometers), medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (between 1,000 to 5,500 kilometers), and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) (more than 5,500 kilometers). Together, Iran’s short and medium-range ballistic missiles place the entire Middle East in range – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and NATO forces in Turkey would be at risk. As far as intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs go, it has not been confirmed whether or not Iran has this capability yet.
Estimates on when Iran will be able to build a nuclear weapon and mate it with one or more of these delivery systems vary, but President Obama recently asserted that it will take a year or more. And while economic sanctions and covert action have proven effective at slowing Iran’s nuclear program, it is still active and has received support from Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, and possibly China. In the absence of a resolution to this issue, which has the potential to directly threaten Europe, spark a regional nuclear arms race, and destabilize a key region for the global economy, Turkey and the rest of NATO must work to forge a common strategy on Iran. If Iran does develop nuclear weapons, this would help avoid an intra-Alliance split and facilitate the formation of a coherent response to a common threat.