In an email message written in March 2015 to Democratic Party donor Jeffrey Leeds, former US Secretary of State and four-star general Colin Powell reportedly had this to say about the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran: “The boys in Tehran know Israel has 200 [nuclear weapons], all targeted on Tehran, and we have thousands.” For that reason, Powell wrote, the Iranians couldn’t use a nuclear weapon even if they finally made one.
The email was apparently leaked by Russian hackers, and released by the American hacktivist group DCLeaks. Powell has confirmed that he wrote other hacked emails attributed to him, including one in which he called presidential candidate Donald Trump “a national disgrace,” so it’s probably safe to assume that the message about Israel’s nuclear arsenal is also authentic.
Israel has long maintained a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” neither confirming nor directly denying that it has a nuclear arsenal. A Nuclear Notebook report by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris of the Federation of American Scientists, published by the Bulletin in late 2014, estimated that Israel had approximately 80 nuclear warheads for delivery by two dozen missiles, and said that claims of 200 to 400 warheads are exaggerated. “Whatever the composition of the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” Kristensen and Norris wrote, “we neither see the indicators that Israel has sufficient nuclear-capable launchers for 200 to 400 nuclear weapons, nor understand why a country that does not have a strategy for fighting nuclear war would need that many types of warheads or warhead designs to deter its potential adversaries.”
Judah Ari Gross, writing in The Times of Israel, suggests that “as a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, [Powell’s] figure of 200 nuclear weapons would appear to carry more weight than the approximations of the ‘news media reports, think tanks, authors, and analysts’ cited in the [Nuclear Notebook] report.” That might be giving Powell too much credit.
As Kristensen reminded me in an email today, “Powell’s number is more than double the number of warheads the US Defense Intelligence Agency estimated Israel had in 1999, and projected they would have in 2020. Although we can’t know for sure, Powell’s number seems to have been plucked from the public debate rather than reflecting an official classified intelligence estimate.” Past estimates of 200 warheads have been based on a 1987 assessment that Israel, at that time, could have produced sufficient fissile material to build 100 to 200 warheads. “That number quickly became the most frequently used estimate,” says Kristensen. “But it was only based on a translation of fissile material into warheads, and did not incorporate other important variables such as the number of Israeli nuclear-capable delivery vehicles and Israeli nuclear strategy.”
Yesterday’s email leak came only two days after the State Department announced that the United States will provide Israel’s military with a record-breaking $38 billion in aid over the next 10 years—equivalent to almost $4,500 per person in Israel. According to USAID, the United States gave Israel $3.1 billion in foreign military aid in 2014 (the last year for which full reporting is available). Only Afghanistan received more foreign military aid than Israel, and together they accounted for 80 percent of the total.