“Secrets are edged tools,
That must be kept from children
And from fools.”
- English poet John Dryden.
So now we know. Maybe it matters to you, maybe it doesn’t. If you’re Iranian President Ahmadinejad, my guess is that it does matter. Thanks to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter we’ve been advised that Israel has “150 or more” nukes in their arsenal.
Seriously, is this something that needed to be broadcast by a former U.S. President? Hot on the heels of his recent trip to the Middle East to sit down with Hamas officials for some bizarre reason, Carter was in the United Kingdom this past weekend for a conference when he decided to hold forth on Israel’s nuclear holdings.
Speaking at something called the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales on Sunday, not to be confused with the Ham-on-Rye spectacular held at my place the same day, Carter was asked about the Iranian nuclear threat. In response he offered the following:
“The U.S. has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union has about the same, Great Britain and France have several hundred and Israel has 150 or more.” To the surprise of those in attendance the former president added that “… I believe Switzerland has a dozen or so, those Belgian bastards have 7, I’m pretty sure they’ve got one in Togo and dollars to donuts they’re hiding a couple in Canada.”
Now, this is not exactly a major breech of security. It’s more like a breech of standard, accepted diplomatic behavior. For many moons now it has been the practice that Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its nuclear capabilities. Successive U.S. administrations have basically maintained the same policy, neither confirming nor denying Israel’s arsenal.
While the generally held view has been that Israel is indeed a nuclear power, neither the Israeli nor U.S. governments felt the need to provide any specifics. There of course has been speculation, with some estimates ranging from a few dozen to several hundred weapons in their arsenal. Personally, I was always partial to the number 271, although I have no evidence to back that up.
Carter, apparently concerned that publicity from his Hamas trip was drying up, decided that it was high time to change years of standard procedure and shed a little light on the subject. How surprised were all those Welshmen in attendance at the conference when they heard a former U.S. President not only acknowledge Israel’s nuclear weapons capability but also attach a number to it?
As an aside, how many famous Welshmen can you name without turning to the information superhighway? I’m stumped after Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and John Cale. I left a note for the PWB interns to turn off Guitar Hero for a few minutes and research the issue, but they responded with a list of famous whales. I’d auction the entire staff off on eBay if there weren’t legal issues involved.
Now I understand perfectly why many folks would look at Carter’s statement and say “…uh, so what.” Possibly, those same folks would mutter “… who cares.” Maybe even a “… big deal, everyone knows they have nukes.”
Right. But that’s not really the point. The issue here isn’t whether the former president wandered off the reservation and lent credibility and specificity to a previously generally accepted notion. He did. The point is that, in the eyes of the Iranians, Carter provided a specific number informed by his years in the White House, and in doing so possibly provided leverage in their own efforts to develop a nuclear capability.
It doesn’t matter if he was perhaps making his own best guesstimate or perhaps reciting a number he’d seen in a news article in the past… the assumption in Ahmadinejad’s office will be that Carter, based on his time as U.S. President with access to highly classified intelligence, knows that Israel possesses “150 or more” weapons. And in seeing this information out in the public, attributed to what the world perceives as a highly credible source, Iran will use that information to its advantage.
Let’s try a multiple choice question: In our ongoing efforts to influence, pressure, cajole or encourage Iran to cease and desist their efforts to create a nuclear capability, we could describe the former president’s comments as…
c) Potentially damaging
d) Confusing to the Welsh
e) All of the above
If you chose “e” then you are an insightful student of foreign policy and likely far more clever than the PWB’s interns number one and two.
In trying to figure out a logical reason for why the former president thought it necessary to illuminate us with his inside knowledge of Israel’s holdings, I’ve come to the conclusion that he has such a disdain for the current administration that he honestly could care less what impact his actions or words have on current proceedings.
Some have speculated that perhaps he simply slipped. Personally I don’t believe this was a “Grandpa” moment. He’s too smart and well informed on the Middle East to miss the relative significance of his comments. Unfortunately, his willingness to out Israel’s capabilities may impact on the next administration’s efforts to deal with Iran.
Carter, and many others to be fair, believe that what we need to do is be more engaging with Iran… talk more and perhaps pressure less. More carrot, less stick. I don’t know about you, but if I’m looking to spend more time at the conference table, I may not want to show my cards in advance. Giving the Iranians a number that they can throw back at us, such as “150 or more”, is probably not the best way to start the game. It’s like calling “all in” before the hand has been dealt.
Before we wrap it up, and not to be churlish, but did anyone see the headline earlier today about the IAEA’s latest report on Iran? It actually made news the same day as Carter’s comments, which some might call sublime. Of course others would attribute it to the vast international conspiracy to discredit Iran. Apparently the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report indicating that Iran might be withholding information needed to determine whether they’ve been trying to develop nuclear weapons. Really?
Maybe now that they know about Israel’s 150 nukes, Ahmadinejad will see the light and respond with an honest and transparent discussion of Iran’s program. Does anyone know the Welsh translation for What a Load of Crap?
Till next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures and two new BBC drama series finishing production in the U.K.