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WikiLeaks Cables Suggest Arab Fears Over Iran Mirror Israel's

  • Robert Tait

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh in 2007

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh in 2007

In urging the United States to "cut off the head of the snake" and "put an end to [Iran's] nuclear program," the Middle Eastern head of state was not telling Washington policymakers anything they had not heard before from a staunch but threatened ally in one of the world's most volatile regions.

After all, Israel had for years been describing the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as an intolerable existential threat that warranted urgent preemptive action.

Except in this case, the leader clamoring for a military strike on Iran's troublesome installations was not the prime minister of Israel but none other than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a fellow Muslim country that is home to Islam's holiest sites and maintains full, if somewhat cool, diplomatic relations with Tehran.

The Saudi monarch's stridently robust views are among the most arresting disclosures in the tranche of 250,000 diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

The king "frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program," according to one cable. After an April 2008 meeting between King Abdullah and U.S. General David Petraeus, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, is quoted as saying: "He [the king] has told you [Americans] to cut off the head of the snake."

Nor can the king necessarily be accused of being two-faced. He reportedly told Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to "spare us your evil," adding: "You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters." Talking to a senior White House official, he said Iran's "goal is to cause problems." He added: "There is no doubt something unstable about them."

Fueling Saudi hostility, according to Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University, London, was fear that a nuclear-armed Iran would gain a free hand to dominate neighboring Iraq -- where the Saudis and Iranian are competing for influence -- and extend its influence in the wider region:

"One of the main documents on which this discussion is based dates from April 2008 and also refers to Iraq, not just Iran, and it makes pretty clear that one of the main Saudi concerns was the influence of Iran inside Iraq," says Hollis. "Therefore, one has to understand that the concern about Iran going nuclear or having a weapon capability has to do not only with the threat that would pose not only with proliferation in the region, but also the sense that it would enable Iran to act with impunity in regional politics in extending its influence in Iraq and also, probably Lebanon."

Mideast Hawkishness

But arguably most striking of all is the extent to which this hawkish anti-Iran stance is shared by other Arab leaders.

The call for military action to stop Iran's nuclear activities is echoed by officials in Jordan and Bahrain, according to U.S. diplomatic cables. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is quoted, again in conversation with Petraeus, as "[arguing] forcefully for taking action to terminate [Iran's] nuclear program, by whatever means necessary."

In Oman, a senior minister identified Kuwait and Qatar, along with Bahrain, as countries in the Gulf that would favor a U.S. strike against Iran.

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is described as calling Iran a "huge problem that goes far beyond nuclear capabilities" because of its alleged backing for terrorist groups in the Gulf region, Afghanistan , Yemen, and Africa. And the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, channels his anti-Iranian sentiments through a personal attack on President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whom he brands as an extremist "who does not think rationally." Iran, he says, is "always stirring trouble." His views are echoed by Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed who, urging action sooner rather than later, said of Ahmadinejad: "I believe this guy is going to take us to war. It's a matter of time."

The sentiments put in perspective a June 2009 warning from Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, as disclosed in the files, of there being a window of "between six and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might be viable" before military action resulted in "unacceptable collateral damage."

Taken alone, Barak's comments could be construed as tantamount to warmongering. Against the backdrop of widespread Arab anti-Iranian hostility, they appear strikingly close to a consensus.

But the most significant aspect of this bellicose chorus is the light it casts on U.S. policy as it has evolved under President Barack Obama.

'No Weight'

With the permanent five UN Security Council members -- the U.S. Britain, France, Russia, and China -- plus Germany, tentatively scheduled to have another round of nuclear negotiations with Iran on December 5, the Obama administration now appears restrained in contrast to the belligerence of its Arab allies.

Hollis believes the tone of the leaked documents lends credibility to Obama's policy of offering to engage Tehran while mustering a more united international front that has resulted in a fourth round of UN sanctions:

"You have to say that the danger of war talk was actually greater a year or so ago than it is today in part because of the line taken by the Obama administration, which is to offer direct dialogue between the United States and Iran," she says, adding that this enabled a "greater international cohesion" to back-up the dialogue approach. "I think there has been some success on the part of the United States in getting people to focus on what the consequences of a military strike could be and whether these would be worse than the alleged gain in terms of damaging Iran's nuclear facilities."

The suspicion that the leaks could help Obama's Iran policy seemed to be bolstered by Ahmadinejad, who addressing a news conference in Tehran on November 29 claimed the documents had not been leaked but had instead been released by the U.S. government for "political" gain. Iran was "friends" with its Arab neighbors, he insisted.

"This information has not been leaked," Ahmadinejad said. "These [documents] are being released on a regular basis and in a planned manner and they fulfill political aims. From our viewpoint, it has no [real] weight. Some sections within the U.S. government prepare and release some documents, and then they make judgments based on those documents."

That response may simply reflect an Iranian mind-set that viscerally mistrusts the U.S. as a nation bent on undermining the Islamic republic. Or it may reflect umbrage over a Saudi threat to respond in kind if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. Either way, says Hollis, the WikiLeaks disclosures do not transform the landscape for American policy toward Iran.

"I don't think these revelations are going to change the atmosphere substantially," she says. "It's simply giving some credence to what was generally understood. I don't think [the Iranians] ever anticipated a warm relationship with Saudi Arabia and both well understand that they are on opposite sides in terms of the future of Iraq. It won't do the Saudis any harm for the Iranians to know that they were saying, 'We'll have to get a nuclear weapon if Iran does.' That is a deterrent to the Iranians doing it."

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