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The WikiLeaks Cables That Call for Attacks on Iran: An Alternative Analysis

by POUYA ALIMAGHAM

07 Dec 2010 13:3311 Comments
US+Saudi+HeadsofState.jpgA closer look underscores the Islamic Republic's growing influence in the region.

[ analysis ] With WikiLeaks' release of more than 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables between the United States and its allies, politicians and Iran specialists are falling over themselves to highlight the Islamic Republic's supposed regional isolation and the putatively unanimous dismay with which its nuclear program is viewed. Israeli Premier Benyamin Netanyahu, for instance, leveraged the leaks to vindicate his official stance on Iran, declaring, "The documents show many sources backing Israel's assessments, particularly of Iran...that Iran is the threat."

The cables illustrate that senior officials in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel have been privately soliciting the United States to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, alleging that its nuclear program constitutes an "existential threat." The cables also expose the duplicitous behavior of some, particularly Saudi Arabia, whose ambassador to Iran only recently described Saudi-Iranian relations as "brotherly" and urged further cooperation, citing "common viewpoints" that necessitate "the continuance of consultation between the two countries."

As news agencies continue to scour the files, it is still too early to make sweeping conclusions. Nevertheless, a closer look at the cables released thus far coupled with recent developments in the region suggests an alternative analysis: Iran is not in fact isolated but is an emerging regional power whose rise itself proves that there is no consensus on the threat it poses and whether the Persian Gulf country should be attacked. Furthermore, their behind-the-scenes campaign for an American attack on Iran also exposes their reluctance to encounter the new balance of power themselves. Lastly, the diplomatic cables demonstrate the necessity of differentiating between the views of a few unrepresentative Arab leaders and that of the Middle Eastern population as a whole.

A brief survey of 2010 illustrates how Iran's influence in the region is growing both through state relations and on the popular level. Indeed, poll results indicate that in contradistinction to the private communications of the Arab regimes named above, most citizens of the Arab world do not perceive Iran to be a threat and view with approval the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb. (Israel is, of course, excluded here as a non-Arab country.)

Iran-Iraq relations are a major case in point. On March 7, 2010, Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new government. The elections, however, failed to produce a clear winner and an eight-month political deadlock ensued in Baghdad. One by one, Iraqi politicians made their way to neighboring Iran to facilitate a breakthrough, implicitly acknowledging the Islamic Republic as the main powerbroker in their country. This is an important point that must not be understated. While in 2003, it was the U.S.-led coalition that brought down the Ba'athist regime, facilitating the electoral process in which Iraqi politicians now contend for power, today, it is Iran and not the United States that is the main arbiter in Iraq. So decisive is the Iranian role that it has led to envy among its rivals and efforts to compete. For example, Saudi Arabia tried to supplant Iran as mediator by inviting Iraqi politicians to Riyadh on October 31. Iraqi officials refused, voicing, of all things, "fears over foreign interference." That a Saudi role in ending the electoral standoff is considered unacceptable external meddling while countless Iraqi politicians have visited Iran seeking support for their respective factions further attests to the latter's burgeoning role.

Iranian influence in Iraq is not limited to political parties; it also extends to the street. Indeed, it is rumored that Iran is orchestrating the transformation of the Sadrist movement -- led by populist Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been in Iran for the past few years -- into a Hezbollah-esque state-within-a-state.

Elsewhere, Iranian-Syrian relations have never been better. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Syria in February 2010, his counterpart, President Bashar al-Assad, announced an agreement annulling entry visas between the two countries, explaining, "This agreement would result in more communication and enhancing the common interests of the Syrian and Iranian peoples.... Bilateral relations cannot remain confined to the political domain for decades.... I believe this agreement will push relations along this direction, and will further enhance the relations at all levels and in all sectors."

As for Lebanon, Ahmadinejad's much publicized October visit to the country prompted a senior Israeli official to describe it as a "commander coming to inspect his troops." As cofounder of Hezbollah, one of the world's most powerful guerrilla movements, the Islamic Republic's continued financial, military, and spiritual and political support means that Iranian influence in the Levant is a concrete, long-term reality.

Iran's support of militant groups is not confined to a sectarian Shia agenda; its backing of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip is a testament to a wider strategy.

Iran's allies extend beyond the Arab states of the Middle East. Relations between Iran and Turkey are also stronger than ever. In June 2010, Turkey defied its longtime American ally and voted against the United Nations Security Council resolution that slapped Iran with another round of sanctions for its nuclear program. Two-time U.S. presidential hopeful John McCain characterized Turkey's nay vote as an "obvious thumb in the eye."

To the east, Iran's political clout dates back to the days when the Iranians, along with the Indian government, funded and sustained the resistance against the Taliban -- the same resistance that rode to power atop the American campaign to topple the Taliban after 9/11. Today, Iran cements its relations with the resistance-born regime of President Hamid Karzai with millions of dollars in support. In October, Karzai defended his acceptance of the copious financial backing: "They want good relations in return.... Afghanistan and Iran have neighborly relations.... We have also asked lots of things in return in this relationship...so it's a relationship between neighbors. It will go on and we'll continue to ask for cash help from Iran."

Indeed, Iran is far from isolated in the region, to say nothing of its allies outside the Middle East.

Beyond state actors, recent polls belie Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian, and Emirati officials' statements that Arabs view Iran as the region's biggest threat. Conversely, the poll found that "large majorities of Arabs list the United States and Israel as the region's worst enemies, far above Iran" and believe that a "nuclear-armed Iran would be a positive development in the Middle East."

Contrary to the opinions of some specialists and politicians, this alternative analysis of the confidential cables affirms several points: Iran is not in fact isolated; its influence is expanding throughout the region, so much so that it causes Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian, Emirati, and Israeli officials great anxiety; these governments' private pleas for help from the United States demonstrate their inability to come to terms with the new political landscape of the Middle East; the private Arab cables show how these regimes do not reflect the will of the majority of the Arab world, who according to recent polls consider Israel and the United States to pose much greater threats to the region.

Iran has powerful opponents and is still reeling from the 2009 postelection turmoil and a strict sanctions regime, but it is far from isolated, as many contend. Most importantly, there is no consensus on an attack on Iran, despite the lobbying efforts of a few Arab regimes and Israel. The Obama administration would do well to consider the reality of Iranian influence in the Middle East because an attack on Iran premised on the false notion that the Persian Gulf power is isolated and unpopular in the region could be a disastrous miscalculation.

Pouya Alimagham received his B.A. from UC Berkeley and M.A. from Harvard University. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan and a blogger at iPouya.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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11 Comments

I randomly read this and realized you wrote it Pouya! Good stuff. What do you think about Iran's presence in South America?

Omeid / December 7, 2010 9:04 PM

Iran may not be isolated locally (i.e. the Middle East), but it is isolated both among the developed states and among the global economy. There is a long way to go yet.

However, this article is still valid and provides a preview to the potentials of Iran as a global power. Imagine Iran with a moderate, democratic government that embraces its flourishing and diverse civil society. Imagine Iran - with its vast oil and gas wealth - being integrated into the global economy.

It will be like Turkey on steroids.

Pak / December 8, 2010 1:07 AM

President Ahmadinejad correctly called the supposedly leaked documents "releases;" realeases that were hoped to stir trouble in the Arab-Iranian relations. John McCain is justified to sense a thumb in his eye. After all, the standard of living for the Turkish people has been steadily rising.

Ekbatana / December 8, 2010 2:37 AM

Memo to Omeid: sorry, we can't imagine a moderate Iran, at least not for a long time. If and when the Greens take over, there will be years of score-settling with the Mullahs. It will be a time of tit-for-tat nastiness...

http://www.scribd.com/doc/24684118/Mahmoud-Ahmadinejad-s-Obituary

daleandersen / December 8, 2010 5:28 AM

Imagine Iran with a democratically elected leader who defies Anglo-American oil companies who are skimming the lion's share of the profits from his country by nationalizing the industry.

Imagine the oil companies enlisting the aid of the CIA to engineer a phony coup to forcibly remove the leader and re-install a ruthless megalomaniacal puppet dictator who had been ousted in the elections.

Imagine that this dictator, having seen the dangers of democratic political process to his reign, eliminates all potential political opposition.

Imagine that the only remaining means for grass roots opposition is via the country's Islamic leaders and that after 25+ years of oppression the dictator is finally removed by means of a quasi-religious revolution.

Imagine that the new leaders and many of Iran's citizens are understandably bitter about the manipulation of their country by foreign governments including that of the U.S.

Imagine that the U.S. offers their former, deposed puppet dictator asylum and that, angered by this, the new Iranian leadership takes a number of American citizens at the U.S. embassy hostage, thus setting the pattern for so-called "Islamic terrorism."

Imagine that, instead of learning its lesson, the U.S. government exacerbates the tension and resentment in the region by supplying weapons and money to another ruthless dictator, this time in Iraq, as he wages war with Iran.

Imagine that, years later, that Iraqi dictator ceases to be an asset and becomes a liability, leading the U.S. to bomb his country into the Stone Age, and place an embargo on, among other things, chlorine, which leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. Imagine that in an interview on 60 Minutes, the Secretary of States argues that the deaths 'were worth it.'

Imagine that subsequent to over a decade of intense bombing sorties over Iraq, the U.S. government decides to invade the country and remove the Iraqi dictator, utilizing erroneous premises as a rationale.

Imagine that having secured Iraq's national resources and installed a large military base in the country, the U.S. turns it attention to Iran, largely on the premise that it has a nuclear program which could be used to assemble nuclear weapons.

Imagine that Iran's nuclear program was initiated by the U.S. back in the mid-70's when the country was still under the control of its puppet dictator.

Crazy, isn't it? But it's not imagination--it's history.

Kent / December 8, 2010 11:10 AM

@daleandersen,
"Minority Report"?

Ekbatana / December 8, 2010 11:31 AM

The blogger assessment is correct. Iran has a goodwill in the region; both along its western and eastern border. Though the blogger has conveniently ignored Pakistan; the fact remains that the region having centuries old cultural impact of the persian cluture has been the areas where now pakistan exists. If any one can scrap Khuda Hafiz from daily Pakistani inter personal greetings; no other sunni majority country has two offs in Moharram and people preferring delayed execution of their new projects after Ashura or end of the month. The reason for a lengthy argument is that despite Saudi contamination; that ignored nation state has a lot of good will for Iran. when on 30 august 1981 explosion took place in tehran and the president and the prime minister were killed; i feel it was only Pakistan state TV that gave full positive coverage to the slain president; elougising Rajai. while in India Human rights medals were being given to Masood rajavi cadre.

lastly anyone should appraise the green brothers that reform is the need of the society; but the timing of rebellion ; i fear is not correct.

Naqi Akbar / December 8, 2010 2:49 PM

I don't think any one can argue against the fact that there has been increase of influence of Iran in the region.

But the two strongest reasons for that were not initiated by Iran herself. It was rather Bush's invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and toppling of Mullah's mortal enemies Saddam and the Taliban that has given Iran the greatest boost in ME influence. So if mere increase of influence is the goal, then perhaps IR owes the 'Great Satan' a big 'Thanks you'.


Pouya,
we all would love to see a strong and prosperous Iran. But it DOES matter who is behind the wheel.
Keep in mind that Germany and Japan also greatly boosted their influence over their regions in the 30s. In case of germany, their influence even went as far as Spain , Italy and Argentina). I am sure some of their citizens at the time boasted about their 'increase of influence' too. But how much did their people suffer in the 40s?

Influence is good, but what is more important is the captain of the ship.


I agree with Pak, that a secular, free and democratic Iran, with its great natural and human resources would become a much stronger power not just in the ME, but in the world.
Who knows, may be some day we will even win the World cup instead of losing to S. Arabia at home ;)

Ahvaz / December 8, 2010 10:17 PM

Look, Iran has 7000 years of history.

The Islamic Regime will fall some day, in a decade, it will be replaced by a government which is also strong. The Iranian people are strong, intelligent and have an incredible history.

What we are seeing right now is the end of Western hegemony and the beginning of the new Eastern hegemony. This is the cycle of history.

Do not fear it.

Cyrus / December 10, 2010 10:24 PM

Face it. An American attack will not be determined by how strong Iran is. Military experts know fully well that Iran has access to retaliation measures (Hezbollah, Irak, SaudiArabia, Hormuz etc).

The question is: Is it acceptable to leave products that can be used to build nuclear weapons in a short amount of time to a regime that openly threatens the existence of other countries? My personal opinion is no.

Jens / December 14, 2010 5:45 PM

Well written article that goes to the face of most contributors on TB.

Pak-well said, but all nations need a transition. The IR has been that transition to make Iranians see religious rule and bring them to a secular conclusion.

Jens-I am not sure if you are not describing Israel who has repeatedly, since 1990, threatened Iran with its nuclear weapons. Additionally, why should anyone worry about threats by a non-nuclear nation, when nuclear nations use conventional weapons backed with the security of nuclear weapons, and repeatedly attack and kill thousands. Are you not ignoring reality that has already occurred and fearing more what you read? Which neighbor of Israel has not been attacked by her? Should we ignore Afganistan and Iraq, and worry about Iran, a nation that has never attacked anyone?
You are asking us to ignore those who have ALREADY used their might to occupy, and worry about those who MAY someday in a distant future do the same thing. Intellectually dishonest!

Anonymous / December 18, 2010 12:07 PM