Marc Lynch

What the WikiLeaks cables really say about Arabs and Iran

What the WikiLeaks cables really say about Arabs and Iran

Almost all of the discussion about the WikiLeaks documents seems to have followed the lead of the New York Times in emphasizing a few of the cables showing inflammatory private anti-Iranian rants by Arab figures such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Hamed of Bahrain and Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. A lot of Iran hawks are taking this as proof that the Arabs really do want war with Iran. I can understand why they are leaping at the framing, either to score points or to pave the way towards normalizing the idea of a military strike. But that’s only one small part of what the cables which have been released show. So, in response to Jeffrey Goldberg, I’ve got to say that I think that the cables show that he got Israeli views mostly right, as I wrote at the time. But I also think that they show that I got the Arab views mostly right too.

The cables thus far released show that most Arab leaders deeply fear rising Iranian power and want the U.S. to solve their problems for them, and that in private Jordanian, Egyptian and Gulf leaders expound at length on Tehran’s perfidy (as many of us have heard before, without the benefit of leaked cables). They are indeed "suspicious and hostile towards Iran." But they also fear retaliation by Iran and exposure before their own public opinion, are internally divided about how to respond, and insist on keeping their private views to themselves. And Arab public opinion is sharply against war with Iran, despite years of anti-Iranian propaganda in the Saudi-backed Arab media, and harshly critical of much of the foreign policy of these regimes. As Mossad Director Meir Dagan bluntly, and accurately, put it in one of the leaked cables, the Arab states "all fear Iran, but want someone else to do the job for them."

There’s plenty of evidence throughout the cables of the well-known suspicions of Iran in Arab palaces — with some of the wildest comments coming from Egyptian officials. But there’s also plenty of evidence of their reluctance to get involved in military action. In February, for instance, the office director of Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that "Kuwaitis are equally concerned about military pre-emption, which they believe would not prove decisive and would lead Iran to lash out at US interests in the Gulf." An Omani military official says " he advocated a non-military solution as the best option for the U.S." The Saudi Foreign Ministry "strongly advised against taking military action to neutralize Iran’s program." In other words, "while Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation."

And there’s even more examples in the cables of their desire to avoid taking a public stance. Hosni Mubarak rails about Iranian support for terrorism in private, but then says that this is "well-known but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation." An Israeli official tells his American counterpart that "Emiratis are "not ready to do publicly what they say in private." The Kuwaitis "will welcome any proposals that can move Iran off its nuclear path… but will not expose itself to Iranian ire by getting out front to push for these." Or, in other words, "those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed."

The point here is not to say that the cautious views matter and the hawkish ones don’t. Nor does it say that Arab leaders haven’t been calling for tough measures against Iran, since they have been doing just that for years. It’s to say that Arab leaders are divided and uncertain about how to deal with Iran, and fearful of taking a strong position in public. In other words, it would be a mistake to "make too much of the private remarks of selected Arab regime figures, without considering whether those remarks reflect an internal consensus within their regimes or whether they will be repeated in public in a moment of political crisis." That’s pretty much still where we are today.