Marc Lynch

Gates: Saudis want to fight Iran to the last American

The Saudis always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American” and it is “time for them to get in the game,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister in a newly released cable from February 2010. This captures perfectly the point I made yesterday about how to read the reporting ...

The Saudis always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American” and it is “time for them to get in the game,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister in a newly released cable from February 2010. This captures perfectly the point I made yesterday about how to read the reporting in these cables about the private hawkishness of Arab leaders. The question of Arabs and Iran was never an information problem — it’s an analysis problem. The antipathy which many of these leaders feel for Iran has long been well known. But so has their reluctance to do anything about it. And so have the internal divisions within Arab governments and Gulf ruling families, and their deep fears of either Iranian retaliation or popular upheaval, and their bottomless hunger for U.S. weapons systems, and their hopes that the U.S. would magically solve their problems for them, and the disconnect between the palaces and the public.

Iran hawks have been gloating that the quotes from a few Arab leaders in the initial cable release vindicate their analysis and discredit skeptics of military action against Iran. It doesn’t. Gates’ comment about the Saudis needing to “get into the game” came almost two years after King Abdullah’s now-famous “cut off the head of the snake” comment. And another cable from January 2008 shows Abdullah telling Sarkozy that Saudi Arabia “does not want to inflame the situation,” recommends “continued international engagement” with Iran and “is not yet ready to take any action besides diplomacy.” Maybe, just maybe, those private remarks weren’t actually a very reliable guide to what the Saudis will really do in public?

The way the Iran hawks have been leaping at a few juicy quotes while ignoring the entire well-known context only shows the ongoing poverty of their analysis. I would expect better from the serious analysts on the hawkish side, but, well, there you are.

The Saudis always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American” and it is “time for them to get in the game,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister in a newly released cable from February 2010. This captures perfectly the point I made yesterday about how to read the reporting in these cables about the private hawkishness of Arab leaders. The question of Arabs and Iran was never an information problem — it’s an analysis problem. The antipathy which many of these leaders feel for Iran has long been well known. But so has their reluctance to do anything about it. And so have the internal divisions within Arab governments and Gulf ruling families, and their deep fears of either Iranian retaliation or popular upheaval, and their bottomless hunger for U.S. weapons systems, and their hopes that the U.S. would magically solve their problems for them, and the disconnect between the palaces and the public.

Iran hawks have been gloating that the quotes from a few Arab leaders in the initial cable release vindicate their analysis and discredit skeptics of military action against Iran. It doesn’t. Gates’ comment about the Saudis needing to “get into the game” came almost two years after King Abdullah’s now-famous “cut off the head of the snake” comment. And another cable from January 2008 shows Abdullah telling Sarkozy that Saudi Arabia “does not want to inflame the situation,” recommends “continued international engagement” with Iran and “is not yet ready to take any action besides diplomacy.” Maybe, just maybe, those private remarks weren’t actually a very reliable guide to what the Saudis will really do in public?

The way the Iran hawks have been leaping at a few juicy quotes while ignoring the entire well-known context only shows the ongoing poverty of their analysis. I would expect better from the serious analysts on the hawkish side, but, well, there you are.

 (Note: updated to include the Sarkozy-Abdullah cable)

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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