On May 26, ex-president Jimmy Carter demonstrated his disdain for Israel and disregard for state secrets when he announced that Israel “… has 150 or more” atomic weapons. His statement likely breaks federal law, compromises the trust of a key ally and could help fuel Middle East nuclear proliferation.
Carter’s statement came during the annual literary Hay Festival in England in response to a reporter’s question about US policy with a nuclear-armed Iran. It violates America’s support for Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, to neither confirm nor deny the existence of its assumed arsenal. It also may violate federal laws regarding the disclosure of classified information.
One might blame Carter’s slip on old age — he’s 83. But he was sloppy with secrets even while in the White House. Back in 1980, a few days before he lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, Carter was asked by a reporter, “Mr. President, how are the [52 American] hostages.” [Iranian radicals seized the US embassy in November 1979 and held our diplomats for 444 days.] Carter replied, “Oh, they’re fine.” The astonished reporter then asked him how he could know that they were fine. Carter glibly replied, “Oh, we know where they are.”
Everyone but Carter realized that crucial operational intelligence had just been compromised. Tehran was listening and quickly relocated the hostages. Carter’s slip doomed Operation Honey Badger which was literally hours away from Army Rangers seizing Tehran’s airport before Special Forces were to rescue the hostages.
It remains unclear whether Carter’s irresponsible statement about Israeli nukes was citing his independent assessment or drawing on US intelligence he would have had access to as president. No matter the source, Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Arye Mekel responded, “We never discuss this issue.”
Israel’s nuclear program was first exposed in 1960 after an American U-2 surveillance aircraft photographed the French-built reactor in the Negev desert. Soon thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion acknowledged that Israel was building a 24-megawatt reactor “for peaceful purposes.” Ben-Gurion’s “peaceful purposes” has been interpreted to include atomic weapons strictly for defensive use.
The most revealing evidence of Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program was published by the London Sunday Times in 1986. Mordechai Vanunu, a dismissed Israeli nuclear technician, secretly photographed facilities at Israel’s Negev Nuclear Research Center. His evidence revealed an underground plutonium separation facility and atomic weapons. Later, Vanunu was reportedly kidnapped from Australia by Israeli agents, tried and imprisoned.
Former Israeli intelligence chief Major General Aharon Ze’evi Farkash warned that Carter’s “…150 or more” atomic weapons statement could potentially be used by Iran to push its nuclear development. In the very least, it exposes Israel’s nuclear agenda and provides Tehran with more cover to satisfy its nuclear quest. Worst, it contributes to the region’s growing nuclear angst which is fueling proliferation.
Tel Aviv uses the atomic threat to ensure America keeps its pledge to maintain Israel’s conventional weapons edge over its foes so it will never have to revert to nuclear weapons. America has dutifully provided billions of dollars in annual conventional arms aid to Israel to keep Tel Aviv’s nukes sheathed.
Israel has also used the threat of atomic warfare to prompt America to act on its behalf. Shortly before the end of Desert Storm in 1991 the Israelis threatened retaliation if the Iraqis used chemical warheads on the scud rockets then hitting Israel. At the time Israel tested a nuclear capable Jericho missile which was widely interpreted as a prelude to a possible nuclear strike against Baghdad. That launch prompted the US to intensify its hunt for scuds in western Iraq, to provide satellite downlink to increase warning time on scud attacks and to promise Tel Aviv “Technical parity with Saudi jet fighters in perpetuity.”
Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions and not Israel’s veiled arsenal appear to be the primary impetuous fueling Mideast atomic proliferation.
"To have 13 states in the region say they’re interested in nuclear power over the course of a year  certainly catches the eye," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The Iranian angle is the reason."
Even the widely respected King Abdullah of Jordan confirmed that “The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region … [now] everybody’s going for nuclear programs." Last year, the King met Canada’s prime minister to discuss the purchase of heavy water reactors.
Egypt has had a nuclear program since the 1950s which includes a reactor built in 1997 and four more are promised within the next 10 years. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says nuclear power is a “…integral part of Egypt’s national security” although he promises Egypt has no desire for a bomb.
Last fall, Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler said "Nuclear energy is not an option. It is a necessity.” By 2015, Turkey plans to build two nuclear power stations, with further plants expected to follow. But nuclear energy is not Turkey’s only goal. “We have a competition with Iran; we don’t want to pass regional control to Iran," said retired General Armagan Kuloglu, head of Strategi, a Turkish think tank. If Iran gains nuclear weapons, then "Turkey needs nuclear weapons also," he said.
Recently, President Bush visited Riyadh to “…pave the way for Saudi Arabia’s access to safe, reliable fuel sources for energy reactors.” The world’s largest supplier of oil may not need atomic energy but it appears to have an interest in nuclear weapons. In 2003, press reports indicate that then-Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz visited Pakistan to seek a “nuclear deterrent” obstinably against Tehran.
The West must tread carefully when helping good allies acquire nuclear technology. America’s former ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, had plans to build 36 reactors. Imagine the problems today had he completed those projects before that country fell to the ayatollahs.
The proliferation “red flag” is nuclear enrichment which as we have found in Iran is impossible to control. Remember, India and Pakistan initially used their enrichment programs for commercial nuclear reactors but kept some centrifuges secretly enriching uranium for weapons. Both countries now have significant nuclear weapons programs.
Nuclear proliferation is a serious problem and especially in a region like the Mideast which is marked by unrest, tyrannical governments and terrorist groups. The US may not be able to stop nuclear reactor proliferation but it must limit enrichment activities and weaponization.
Ex-president Carter’s irresponsible loose lips about Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal demonstrates his poor judgment and damages our relations with Tel Aviv. But it also brings into focus a very serious nuclear proliferation problem which if not contained will threaten world peace.