The WikiLeaks Cables That Call for Attacks on Iran: An Alternative Analysis
by POUYA ALIMAGHAM
07 Dec 2010 13:33
[ 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.
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