Rethinking the Wikileaks cables

Cross-posted from Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi at Hudson New York

Are these cables actually a useful guide to Arab states’ policies about Iran? Do Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Israel really share common interests?

One of the major points raised about the recent leak of U.S. diplomatic cables by Wikileaks is the apparent hostility Gulf Arab leaders display towards Iran in private. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for instance, called on the U.S. to launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities to “cut off the head of the snake,” while Crown Prince Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler. A new consensus has therefore emerged that there is a united Arab front against Iran, with the real policies of the Saudis, among others, towards the Islamic Republic now supposedly revealed.

It is also now held as common knowledge, particularly by conservative pundits, that the interests of the Gulf Arab states, the U.S. and Israel coincide.

This view, however, of the present Middle East as a cold war between an Arab front and Iran is simplistic. It is more accurate to note that while there is currently a cold war, it is between what Daniel Pipes terms a “revolutionary bloc,” led primarily by Turkey, Syria and Iran, and a “status-quo” bloc, headed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Despite being a Persian Gulf state with Sunni Arab rulers and a mostly Sunni Arab population, Oman nonetheless sides with the revolutionary bloc, whereas Qatar plays both sides. As both Oman and Qatar maintain close diplomatic and economic ties with Tehran, it would be folly to base any policy in the Middle East on the premise of a united Arab bloc against Iran.

Moreover, on what basis should it be deduced that the cables reflect Arab affinity with U.S. policies? It could well be that the Arab leaders in question are simply telling American diplomats what they think U.S. policymakers want to hear from them, something that should not be surprising in private diplomacy. As Lee Smith points out, in the days of the Cold War “the Saudis told U.S. officials they hated communists because it flattered their American protectors who were fighting Moscow on four continents; the notion of a shared ideological passion, as well as a common strategic interest, gave the Saudis special status in Washington.” While the U.S. ensured the flow of Saudi oil into the international market, according to Smith, “Riyadh flirted just enough with Moscow to keep Washington on its toes.” Saudi Arabia’s concern was not so much communism itself as Soviet support for the likes of President Nasser of Egypt, who once led a revolutionary bloc of his own in the 1950s and 60s that threatened Saudi Arabia’s status in the region. When Saudi officials appeared to share the anti-communist sentiments of U.S. policymakers, Saudi Arabia had its own interests in mind: maintaining the status-quo and balance of power in the Middle East in Saudi Arabia’s favor.

Although it is incorrect to suggest that countries like Saudi Arabia do not harbor any antipathy towards Iran, it is also incorrect to conclude that the Sunni Arab states are tacit supporters of Washington’s policies in the Middle East. As Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation puts it, “Arab leaders are still resentful of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its overturning of the regional balance of power in ways that have strengthened Iranian influence. Despite considerable U.S. arms sales and missile defense cooperation with allies in the region in recent years, American credibility is in decline, and popular views of the United States are overwhelmingly negative, most alarmingly in states that are key U.S. partners, such as Egypt and Jordan.” Likewise, popular anti-Israel sentiment among the populations prevents the prospect of overt cooperation with Israel against Iran that has been envisioned by some Israeli policymakers.

Rather than looking into the Wikileaks cables in an attempt to ascertain the policies of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states regarding Iran, it might be more useful to examine the more muted public statements of Arab leaders to the masses as a guide to their policies on this matter. This applies as a rule for the Middle East; a suitable analogy is the case of Hamas. Although certain Hamas leaders have affirmed in private to Western journalists and diplomats that they would be willing to recognze Israel along the pre-1967 borders, the message at public rallies and in the popular media continues to be the outright rejection of Israel’s existence. Of course, hostile belligerence — not willingness to compromise — is the hallmark of Hamas’s policies in its relations with Israel.

It is the muted public statements of Arab leaders — not what they say in private to American diplomats – that define their nations’ policies towards Iran. These policies are summarized by Dalia Dassa Kaye as follows: “All Arab states hedge in their policies toward Iran, seeking to rein in Iranian influence but also being mindful of the permanence of Iranian power and the costs of antagonizing it.” American and Israeli analysts, as well as those with a general interest in the present state of affairs in the Middle East, should be careful not draw the wrong conclusions from these leaked cables.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.