January 19, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 254

Under The Emerging Turkey-Pakistan Strategic Alliance, Pakistan May Provide Turkey With Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

January 19, 2021 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan, Turkey, South Caucasus | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 254


This paper examines increasing concerns over the Turkish-Pakistani strategic partnership in recent years, especially regarding the likelihood that rogue elements in the Pakistani military could supply nuclear technology to Turkey. Such concerns appeared real in view of the Turkish-Pakistani military cooperation against Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Music videos on social media celebrate the cooperation of Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan as well as Azerbaijan's victory over Nagorno-Karabakh.[1]

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad

The issue of Turkish-Pakistani military cooperation gained relevance after the emergence of allegations, understandably denied by the Pakistani government, that Pakistani soldiers fought against Armenian troops in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, resulting in a military victory for Azerbaijan.[2] A trilateral conference between Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan – held in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on January 13, 2021 – further strengthened this view that the three countries are working together at military and Islamic religious levels.[3]

On October 2, 2020, Zahid Hafeez Chaudri – the spokesman of the Foreign Office in Islamabad – dismissed the allegations of Pakistani army's role in Nagorno-Karabakh as "speculative and baseless" but added that Pakistan supports Azerbaijan's position in this war.[4] Significantly, the Pakistani denial came just a day after Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev thanked Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan "for their support in the fighting against Armenian forces."[5] The nature of support from the three countries was not stated publicly.

While Turkish military's role in support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia is well established, Pakistani military's role remains not-so-shrouded.[6] A fortnight after Pakistan's denial of its military involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, in an interview with the Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya, that "special forces of the Pakistani army are also involved in the hostilities [in Nagorno-Karabakh]."[7] Forced by Nikol Pashinyan's charge, Pakistan once again issued a statement, dismissing it as "irresponsible propaganda."[8]

Pakistan Viewed As Key To Turkey's Nuclear Program

According to a transcript published by MEMRI TV, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in 2019, expressed Turkey's intent to acquire nuclear weapons, stating: "Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, and not just one or two. I, however, am not supposed to have missiles with nuclear warheads. I do not accept this. In the world today, among the developed countries, there are almost no countries that do not have missiles with nuclear warheads."[9]

Erdoğan's interest in nuclear weapons for his country might be new, but Turkey has been reported to have desired nuclear weapons technology since at least the 1960s. As per a declassified memo from then U.S. Ambassador Parker T. Hart in Ankara, Turkey had expressed its nuclear ambitions as early as 1966.[10] In July 2020, an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted that Russia is building four civilian nuclear power reactors in Turkey and, "what's worrisome is Turkey could exploit nuclear power as a cover to procure bomb-related technology and hardware. The technology transfer is already occurring."[11]

U.S. Ambassador Parker Hart's 1966 memo (courtesy: Foreign Policy)

Over the past few years, several media reports indicated that the Turkish-Pakistani military cooperation also involves a nuclear dimension. Governments never publicly admit their international nuclear cooperation, which means there will always be denials. Pakistan, which conducted nuclear tests in 1998, also denies such involvement. However, there is also a steady flow of information about a likely Turkish-Pakistani nuclear cooperation.

On January 1, 2021, an Indian media report spoke of "Turkey's diabolic plan to rope in Pakistan in suspected development of atomic weapons" and noted that "suspicions about Pakistan's covert support for Turkish nukes" were strengthened by a meeting of the Turkey-Pakistan High-Level Military Dialogue Group (HLMDG) held in Ankara on December 22-23, 2020.[12] The HLMDG is the highest channel established by the two countries to shape and steer the Turkish-Pakistani strategic partnership.

In June 2020, an Indian newspaper accessed the 2019 annual report prepared by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution for the German State of Baden-Württemberg. It noted that Pakistan and North Korea were "making efforts to procure some raw material for such weapons or technology under garb of dual use items from Germany and elsewhere in Europe" that could "be routed to Pakistan and North Korea through their close ally China besides Turkey."[13]

Some reports also said that "Turkish engineering students have become the second largest national group studying nuclear sciences" in Russia and Turkey is "collaborating militarily with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country";[14] "Turkish companies have backed Pakistan to covertly import materials from Europe" and "export the finished products to players like Libya and North Korea", while "Turkey might be possessing a considerable number of centrifuges, spinning machines that purify uranium to higher grades, made by Pakistan."[15]

Pakistan tested its Ghaznavi missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads in 2012

Under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has taken an Islamist turn, rolling back its decades of secular republican norms. Much like Pakistan, Erdoğan believes nuclear weapons to be necessary for the rise of Turkey and the revival the Ottoman Caliphate. The only Islamic country that could provide Turkey with nuclear technology is Pakistan. A 2015 report published by The Washington Post noted that Pakistan "is far outpacing India in the development of nuclear warheads" and "could have at least 350 nuclear weapons within five to 10 years."[16]

Islam seems to be the singular factor currently driving the Turkish-Pakistani-Azeri strategic cooperation – a point that was reflected by the pro-Taliban Urdu daily Roznama Ummat when it headlined a front-page report on the January 13, 2021 trilateral meeting in the following words: "Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan united for the defense of Islamic tenets."[17]

Turkish-Pakistani Military Ties – Concerns For Greece And India

One of the key reasons Azerbaijan won the Nagorno-Karabakh war was Turkey's military role, especially regarding the supply of drones. The TRT World, a news channel run by the Turkish government, wrote in a report: "Turkish-made drones helped Azerbaijan push out Armenian forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was at the center of the military escalation."[18] Significantly, the report observed: "Simultaneously, Pakistan openly backed Azerbaijan's position to defend a region recognized internationally as part of its territory."[19]

Turkey's supply of drones to Azerbaijan has led to new concerns in India that Ankara might be supplying the Pakistani armed forces with drones. In March 2019, Indian military shot down a Pakistani drone as it attempted to enter Indian airspace in the Sriganganagar district of Rajasthan.[20] In June 2020, Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir shot down a Pakistani drone carrying a highly sophisticated rifle, magazines, and grenades meant for delivery to Pakistani spies in India.[21] In October 2020, the Indian military shot down a Pakistani quadcopter in Jammu & Kashmir.[22]

These developments would not be possible without Pakistani getting help from Turkey and China. Kashmiri journalist Younis Dar wrote a report in November 2020 for the Indian website that Pakistan was buying "mini drones" from Turkey, adding: "The Islamic nation is negotiating a deal to buy small drones from multiple Turkish companies to bolster its UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] fleet for deployment on the border with India."[23]

Also, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is reportedly training Turkish pilots. In November 2020, some media reports emerged that the PAF had, since the failed 2016 coup against Erdoğan, begun training F-16 pilots for the Turkish air force, according to a magazine published from Islamabad by the Columbia University Alumni Club of Pakistan.[24] This issue has recently become a serious threat to Greece and poses a long-term threat to India over the Kashmir issue, a region where Pakistan has long been sending mercenary terrorists.

A Pakistani drone that the Indian military seized in June 2020

In November 2020, Indian military affairs analyst Murli Menon wrote: "[M]odern-day fighter pilots take considerable time and money to train and this serious shortfall of pilots has made Turkey look elsewhere for some 'mercenary' pilots, more so in the wake of the country's ongoing war-like activities in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh regions (Pakistani mercenaries are known to have fought on behalf of the Azerbaijanis against the Armenians here) and against Greece across the Aegean Sea."[25]

Describing the Pakistan Air Force's role as "mercenary missions," Murli Menon added: "It is reported that Pakistani pilots have been flying Turkish F-16s for the past year. Greece has... been complaining about Pak[istani] pilots violating their airspace flying Turkish F-16s and even P-3C Orions. Whilst this may seem to be an innocent helping gesture by a friendly nation, clearly there are implications for India."[26]

The Turkey-Pakistan-Azerbaijan Alliance

It appears that a trilateral military alliance between Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan is coming to fruition. Government-to-government military relations between Turkey and Pakistan have been rapidly increasing in recent years. In 2020, Pakistan also built a Pak-Turkish Friendship Square in Rawalpindi, which is the headquarters of the Pakistan Army. And now, Azerbaijan too has joined the trilateral military alliance.

Esad Akgün, the director general of Turkey's Military Factory and Shipyard Management Inc (ASFAT, a company operating under the Turkish Defense Ministry), visited Islamabad in February 2020. Akgün told a journalist that the company's goal is to "bring a new breath" to the Turkish defense industry sector.[27]

Videos of Pakistani, Turkish and Azeri war songs are shared on social media.

Under Turkey's National Ship Project (MILGEM), Pakistan agreed to buy four corvettes – a warship below a frigate – in a multi-billion contract. Akgün said: "Pakistan's possession of four MILGEM corvettes will change the balance in the region and will carry the country to the position of a playmaker."[28] Significantly, he articulated a vision according to which both the Turkish and Pakistani militaries are one and the same, stating: "It is very important for us to have Pakistan in this position as we do not see the Pakistani army separate from our own army."[29]

It is this joint military strategy which was at work in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. It could alter the strategic balance over the Kashmir region, which is fast emerging as the center of the next Great Game, or Cold War 2, as part of which India too has been evolving, like the Turkish-Pakistani one, its own joint military strategy with the U.S., Australia, and Japan.

A day before the January 13, 2021 trilateral meeting in Islamabad between Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan, PAF chief Mujahid Anwar Khan arrived in Turkey for a five-day visit on a mission to bolster Turkey-Pakistan defense cooperation. However, it must be noted that the PAF chief came to Turkey straight from Azerbaijan where he held top-level meetings. During his meeting in Baku, Lt.-Gen. Ramiz Tahirov, the commander of Azerbaijan's air force, "commended the high standards of the PAF training system and acknowledged its support towards training of Azeri Air Force personnel."[30]

In Turkey, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan gave an exclusive interview to the Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency, declaring: "In my candid opinion, we are two countries, one nation."[31] Stating that Pakistan and Turkey "have a common vision which is to maintain regional stability, peace, and prosperity," the PAF chief noted that "this vision manifests itself with Turkey's support to Azerbaijan" and emphasized Pakistan's "support for Ankara on Cyprus."[32]

Khan also met with the Turkish Air Force Commander General Hasan Küçükakyüz. They discussed mutual interests including, according to a Turkish magazine: "Pakistan's participation in the Anatolian Eagle multinational exercise in Turkey, Turkish air force participation in various exercises organized by Pakistan Air Force, training, and exchange of pilots, as well as defense production."[33] Giving three examples of Palestine, Kashmir, and Azerbaijan, the PAF chief also expressed concerns that moral issues were not being supported by different nations, stating: "Unfortunately, economic interests are being preferred globally over the moral and ethical values of humanity."[34]

In 2019, Anadolu agency published a report on "unconditional" ties and was titled "Overview of unconditional Turkey-Pakistan relations."[35] The report noted that: the Pakistan Navy commissioned a 17,000-ton fleet tanker built in collaboration with the Turkish defense contractor STM; Pakistan had ordered 30 T129 Advanced Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance (ATAK) helicopters from Turkey "specifically designed for attack and reconnaissance"; Turkey was buying MFI-17 Super Mushshak aircraft from Pakistan; and Turkey was upgrading three Pakistani submarines and jointly building a fleet tanker.[36] More examples of increasing military-to-military ties between Turkey and Pakistan exist.

The Second Trilateral Meeting In Islamabad

Erdoğan is the only foreign leader to address a joint session of Pakistan's National Assembly four times, as prime minister in 2009 and 2012 and as president in 2016 and 2020. Over the years, he has steered Pakistan to become a wheel in Turkey's ambitions to revive the Ottoman Caliphate as the leader of the Islamic world, displacing Saudi Arabia, which is the guardian of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and therefore the current leader of the Muslim Ummah.

However, for unknown reasons Pakistani media does not discuss the emerging Turkish role in the Asian region, especially since Pakistan facilitates two inviting forks in the road for the Islamic-minded Turkey to branch out in international relations: one leading to Central Asian countries, and the other leading to Malaysia and Indonesia. While the Indian media frets over these developments and publishes reports without citing any recognizable sources, the Turkish media houses, including those run by the Turkish state, are more open about these issues, perhaps foreseeing a glorious dawn for the Turkish leadership in the Islamic world.

The Trilateral Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan – the first edition of which was held in Baku in 2017 – called, among other things, for enhancing "joint efforts on combating Islamophobia, discrimination, and persecution of Muslim minorities."[37] However, it also noted "the ministers' support for putting an end to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict" in 2020, urged "a peaceful settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute" and called for "a just, sustainable and realistic and mutually acceptable settlement of the Cyprus issue, as well as the issues in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean."[38]

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan at the trilateral meeting

After their trilateral meeting, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi held a separate meeting with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. According to a Pakistani media report, Bayramov thanked Pakistan for its "support" on Nagorno-Karabakh war and reaffirmed Azerbaijan's "consistent support and solidarity on the Kashmir dispute."[39]

At the trilateral meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said: "Pakistan has a unique place in our hearts and we support each other in difficult times...."[40] Also, appreciating Pakistan's support to Azerbaijan to "liberate their territories" from Armenia, the Turkish foreign minister turned his attention to Kashmir, stating: "We express our full support with Kashmiri brothers in the face of worsening human rights situation and demographic change especially during the last two years."[41] The reference to "two years" points to India quashing, in August 2019, the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and reducing the region's status from a state to a federally ruled unit.

The above discussion on the relations between Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan shows that the three partners have ambitions not limited to their territories. Their vision is larger and includes issues involving Greece, Palestine, and Kashmir as well as cooperation programs in different areas of education, health, economy, and others. However, the driving factor in their trilateral relations is geostrategic and military strategy, while a connecting factor is Islam.

* Tufail Ahmad is a Senior Fellow at MEMRI


[1], accessed January 19, 2021.

[2] (India), September 29, 2020.

[3] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), January 15, 2021.

[4] (Pakistan), October 2, 2020.

[5] (Pakistan), October 2, 2020.

[7] Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia,, October 15, 2020.

[8] (Pakistan), October 17, 2020.

[10] (U.S.), November 1, 2019.

[11] TheBulletin.Org (U.S.), July 7, 2020.

[12] (India), January 5, 2021.

[13] (India), June 25, 2020.

[14] (Saudi Arabia), July 10, 2020.

[15] (India), January 3, 2021.

[16] (U.S.), August 27, 2015.

[17] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), January 15, 2021.

[18] (Turkey), January 15, 2021.

[19] (Turkey), January 15, 2021.

[20] (India), March 9, 2019.

[21] (India), June 20, 2020.

[22] (India), October 24, 2020.

[23], November 29, 2020.

[24] (Pakistan), November 3, 2020.

[25] (India), November 9, 2020.

[26] (India), November 9, 2020.

[27] (Turkey), February 25, 2020.

[28] (Turkey), February 25, 2020.

[29] (Turkey), February 25, 2020.

[30] The News (Pakistan), January 13, 2021.

[31] (Turkey), January 14, 2020.

[32] (Turkey), January 14, 2020.

[33] (Turkey), January 14, 2021.

[34] (Pakistan), January 14, 2021.

[35] (Turkey), January 3, 2019.

[36] (Turkey), January 3, 2019.

[37] (Turkey), January 14, 2021.

[38] (Turkey), January 14, 2021.

[39] The News (Pakistan), January 15, 2021.

[40] (Pakistan), January 13, 2021.

[41] (Pakistan), January 13, 2021.

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