The Secret Alliance: Cables Show Arab Leaders Fear a Nuclear Iran
Part 2: The Fears of the Arabs
Iran's biggest enemy among the Arabs is bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi's crown prince and a key figure in the Emirates. In his talks with members of the Obama administration, he compared the current situation with conditions in Europe shortly before World War II, and Tehran's show of power with that of Saddam Hussein in 1990, shortly before his invasion of Kuwait. Bin Zayed, like most other rulers in the region, believed that the attempt to have a dialogue with the Iranians would fail.
"Iran was already acting like a nuclear power," he told the US deputy energy secretary, "Iran is establishing 'emirates' across the Muslim world, including South Lebanon and Gaza, sleeper 'emirates' in Kuwait and Bahrain, and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the mother of all 'emirates' in Southern Iraq, and now Saada in Yemen."
The crown prince believes "'all hell will break loose' if Iran attains the bomb, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey developing their own nuclear weapons capability and Iran instigating Sunni-Shia conflict throughout the world," the Americans wrote after the conversation with the sheikh. "MbZ described a near term conventional war with Iran as clearly preferable to the long term consequences of a nuclear armed Iran."
The sheikh was convinced that an Israeli attack on Iran was imminent, and that Tehran would respond with missiles that would also be aimed at the United Arab Emirates, changing the map of the Middle East. His fears led him to call on the Americans, in July 2009, to finally take action and come up with a "Plan B" for the event that Iran was unwilling to negotiate. Iran, Bin Zayed argued, had to be put under pressure and subjected to immediate penalties if it crossed any "red lines."
For bin Zayed, like other Arab leaders, the solution was to promote internal divisions within Iran. "The only way to prevent it (Iran) from acquiring nuclear weapons was to 'split them from inside'," bin Zayed said, according to one of the embassy cables.
Other Arabs were also articulating their concerns, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. During a visit by John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, the king "noted that Iranian Foreign Minister (Manouchehr) Mottaki "had been 'sitting in that same seat (as Brennan) only a few moments ago.'" According to the embassy report, Abdullah told Brennan what he had just said to the Iranian foreign minister: "You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab affairs." Then, he added, he gave the Iranian official a one-year ultimatum for dialogue, saying: "After that, it will be the end."
The king is no friend of the Iranians. According to one of the US documents, Abdullah described Iran "not as 'a neighbor one wants to see,' but as a 'neighbor one wants to avoid'," noting that the Iranians, "launch missiles with the hope of putting fear in the people and the world. … Iran's goal is to cause problems. There is no doubt something unstable about them." He ended his tirade with a sigh, saying: "May God prevent us from falling victim to their evil."
Although King Abdullah and Sheikh bin Zayed may have been hardliners when discussing Iran in closed-door conversations, they made no remarks to this effect in public. The same applied to the other Arab rulers. The Jordanians, for example, were skeptical of American efforts to focus on dialogue rather than take tough measures from the start. But they too would not have expressed their views out loud. "While the government of Jordan will undoubtedly support US government efforts to increase pressure on Iran, it may seek to avoid a public role on the topic," reads an embassy report dated Feb. 3, 2010.
America repeatedly tried to convince its secret allies to make their views known in public. "Saudi Arabia should exercise leadership with neighbors in the region and publicly by expressing concerns about Iran's continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and destabilizing activities in the region," read one cable.
The Arabs also preferred to remain silent on another matter. The US documents indicate that relations between the Arab nations and Israel are significantly more intensive than they would ordinarily admit. Apparently the common fear of Iran served as a unifier.
Yakov Hadas, the deputy director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, reported that the Gulf Arabs preferred to have Israel deliver their messages to the Americans, because they felt it was more effective. "They believe Israel can work magic," said Hadas.
The Israeli Option
Netanyahu told the Americans that Iran's nuclear program poses the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation since the Cuban missile crisis. He and other Israeli politicians repeatedly pointed out that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it would spell the end of the peace process in the Middle East.
The Israeli leadership rejected dialogue with Tehran from the beginning. Instead, it supported "paralyzing sanctions" preferably in the form of a new resolution in the UN Security Council, but even without such a resolution, if need be. In a conversation, Netanyahu said that it was important to cut off Iranian gasoline imports while simultaneously strengthening the opposition in Tehran by promoting efforts to unblock and thus expand Iranian's access to the Internet in the country.
Netanyahu supported regime change and a revolution from within, the goal being to bring down President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first and then possibly the entire regime, Netanyahu told the Americans in 2007, when he was still the leader of the Israeli opposition.
The Israelis were counting the months that they believed they had left to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb -- two years, a year, six months -- until finally, in December 2009, Netanyahu said that Iran was now capable of building a bomb. But the Americans weren't entirely sure whether they could trust the Israelis. "It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States," an embassy cable reads.
Whether it was a realistic scenario or an attempt to intimidate, Israel made no secret of the fact that it was preparing an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. "All options on the table" is a term the Israelis and Americans often use, one that includes an attack on Iran. America, at any rate, lent credence to the Israelis' threats. The documents confirm that the United States would deliver a new shipment of GBU-28 "bunker-busting" bombs to Israel in November 2009. Because it was clear that the purpose of the weapons was to attack underground nuclear facilities, the Americans and the Israelis kept the delivery under wraps, so as to avoid accusations that the US government was arming Israel for an attack.
In one of the most important steps that was taken to support an Israeli attack, the United States and its allies managed to prevent Iran from receiving Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which could be used to protect its nuclear facilities and seriously hamper an Israeli air strike.
A report written by the US ambassador to the UAE in February 2009 shows how important the S-300 missiles were. The chief of staff of the Emirates' armed forces had summoned the ambassador to a meeting, in which he urgently requested five American Patriot missile batteries. "Following very brief pleasantries the (Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces, COS) bluntly commented: 'I need to be open and frank with you, there are changes in the region that concern us.' … When pressed on what type of event may precipitate an Israeli attack, the COS thought the delivery of the Russian S-300 system could be the catalyst. The COS said very flatly: 'I don't trust the Russians, I've never trusted the Russians or the Iranians.'" The chief of staff apparently feared that an Israeli attack was imminent, because he believed that Israel would strike before the S-300s in Iran were ready for deployment.
During the course of 2009, President Obama made personal appeals to the Russians not to deliver the missiles Iran had ordered. As a February 2009 report from the US embassy in Moscow indicates, preventing the Iranians from getting the S-300 was a priority for the new administration. "For better or for worse, the delivery of the S-300s have become a barometer of our bilateral relations," it states.
In February 2010, the State Department also asked Bahrain, the UAE and Jordan to have their ambassadors in Moscow appeal to the Russians. Saudi Arabia's contribution to obstructing the S-300 sale was to offer Russia a better deal: Riyadh's purchase of $2 billion worth of defensive missiles from Moscow.
Of course, Netanyahu also played his part, by giving the Russians a list of the names of Russian scientists who had allegedly contributed to the Iranian nuclear program -- a form of diplomatic blackmail. Diplomats speculated that the Israelis had other potential revelations up their sleeves that would only increase the pressure on Moscow.
In February 2010 (when the government documents made available to SPIEGEL come to an end), the S-300 deal appeared to be off the table. Indeed, in September 2010 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree banning the sale to Iran.
- Part 1: Cables Show Arab Leaders Fear a Nuclear Iran
- Part 2: The Fears of the Arabs
- Part 3: The End of Patience
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