The Secret Alliance: Cables Show Arab Leaders Fear a Nuclear Iran
Part 3: The End of Patience
Meanwhile, the Americans' efforts to achieve a dialogue with the mullah regime remained fruitless. The Russian domestic intelligence service FSB reported that Iran was still trying to buy Russian equipment for its missile and nuclear program: measuring devices, high precision amplifiers, pressure indicators, various composite materials and technology to create new missile engines. The FSB foiled many of these attempts. Iranian sham companies also tried to buy measuring devices and other equipment in China, Germany and Switzerland.
The deadline for negotiations had expired. And Qatari Prime Minister Jassem al-Thani claimed that President Ahmadinejad had already threatened that: "We beat the Americans in Iraq; the final battle will be in Iran."
A conversation between US Senator John Kerry and the Emir of Qatar highlights the difficulties of talking to the Iranians. "Senator Kerry lamented that every communication the current Administration has attempted to the Government of Iran has gone back channel and met with no response. There have been non-US initiatives, too. Again, no success." He said we need to find a way to talk to Iran's spiritual leader, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei himself. The emir countered: "What if I talk to the Iranian President. What would you have me say?" Kerry responded: "The US seeks serious discussion and sought to create a new foundation for a relationship based on Iran's non-confrontational compliance with IAEA requirements and other mutual interests."
America, the superpower, failed to get the Iranian rulers on the phone. It became clear that the time of patience was coming to an end -- a development apparent in the documents.
Again and again, the same phrase is used: "The United States would not tolerate a nuclear Iran." In some cases, it sounded like a direct threat, as it did in the minutes of a conversation between the US ambassador in Kuwait and the son of the country's prime minister.
"She (the ambassador) emphasized that the President's hand is still outstretched to Iran, but at some point Iran will have to face the consequences of its recalcitrance; moreover, the President was walking a carefully considered fine line in dealing with others who wished to take actions we hoped to avoid."
"Dr. Ahmad (the son of the prime minister) took Ambassador's point and noted that a year or two ago, many in Kuwait hoped a silent, targeted strike would take out the troublesome reactor and leave the region more relaxed. He suggested that now, however, Iran might have multiple reactors and was so intent on achieving its nuclear goal that no matter what the West did, Iran would get the bomb."
And how is one to interpret the following comment US Defense Secretary Robert Gates made to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "If Iran developed nuclear weapons, we were facing two scenarios: nuclear proliferation in the Middle East or a regional war (or perhaps both)."
Or that of US Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, who said in Moscow: "If we fail to stop Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, we could have a 'volatile, possibly explosive' situation in the Middle East."
Whenever there was new information about the Iranian nuclear program or when important meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were about to take place, the US State Department sent cables called "action requests" to all of its embassies. In the cables, the ambassadors were instructed to urge their host countries to increase the pressure by issuing statements against Iran.
On Nov. 21, 2009, it was once again time for that to happen. "Posts (ambassadors) should also begin laying the foundation for possible future action in response to Iran's non-cooperation." In a Jan. 29, 2010 cable, the State Department instructs its ambassadors to explain why a tougher approach to Iran was becoming necessary.
By now, Iran's Arab neighbors were almost unanimous in their insistence on sanctions. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the Emirates, demanded that the United States and its allies "have to decide how to stop Iran." Even the otherwise reserved Saudis said that they were convinced that Iran planned to develop a nuclear weapon and was not about to be dissuaded.
A report on preparations for a visit to Saudi Arabia by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reads: "The King told General Jones that Iranian internal turmoil presented an opportunity to weaken the regime -- which he encouraged -- but he also urged that this be done covertly and stressed that public statements in support of the reformers were counterproductive. The King assesses that sanctions could help weaken the government, but only if they are strong and sustained." By now, the United States was pressuring all countries in the region to support sanctions, which they eventually did. The Qataris, referring to Iran, said: "While we're neighbors, we're not friends."
Pressure was also applied to the Europeans, who were repeatedly asked to take action against specific companies. The Americans also urged the German government not to issue any more Hermes guarantees for business with Iran. The Italian oil company ENI, which was active in Iran, was asked to withdraw from the country, but the Italians refused to comply.
The tone of the secret cables was becoming more abrasive. In one cable, for example, sent after Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan had dismissed Western concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, the Americans write: "His desire for a 'good' Washington visit is the goad we will continue to use to try to turn him back towards the international community consensus on Iran." But it didn't work. The Turks later voted against new sanctions.
Two countries, in particular, came into focus: Russia and China. The Americans needed both to approve sanctions in the Security Council.
Another surprising insight gained from the secret reports is that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia played an important role in convincing the Russians and the Chinese. Although the two countries maintained a reserved profile in public, behind the scenes they helped thwart Chinese trade relations with Iran, which were worth more than $20 billion in 2009. China is the most important buyer of Iranian oil.
Last July, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi traveled to Beijing and urged the Chinese to threaten Iran that they would reduce their oil imports. Saudi Arabia offered to make up for the loss of Iranian oil imports by providing the Chinese with its own oil. The Chinese seemed interested, and their foreign minister held talks with Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company, and sounded out new trade relations with other Saudi government officials. "Saudi Arabia is encouraging other Gulf countries to meet with China to explore similar cooperation," a report from January 2010 reads.
In Moscow, it was a question of money and psychology: "Success in moving Russia to support tougher actions against Iran will require a coordinated strategy involving our friends and allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia." The goal was to make the sanctions palatable to resource-rich Russia. It was in Russia's financial interest to prolong the conflict over Iran indefinitely. An internal analysis from the US embassy in Moscow reads: "As the world's largest exporter of oil and gas, Russia also benefits significantly from the 'instability premium' embedded in world oil prices due to tensions with Iran." A "premium" of $5 a barrel translated into an increase of $9 billion in annual oil export revenues for Moscow.
Just How Great Is the Threat?
In the end, the question that remains is: How great is the actual threat Iran poses for the rest of the world? The statements in the embassy documents show that all key players -- the United States, the Europeans, Israel, the Arabs and later Russia -- are convinced that Iran is expediting its nuclear program to use the technology militarily. However, there is no consensus on the question of whether Iran is capable of building the bomb, or whether it even intends to build it.
The US diplomats extensively cite new analyses that supposedly support the view that Iran lacks the technical capability to build long-range missiles, and that that won't change for several years. In that case a nuclear missile attack on Europe, Russia or the United States would be unrealistic.
Even in Israel, not everyone is convinced that the construction of an atom bomb in Iran is imminent. During a meeting between the Americans and the Israelis in May 2009, Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli military intelligence said that Iran "does not want to be North Korea or what Iraq was before 2003." Iran intends to keep resolutions and sanctions at a certain "manageable level" and continue to produce low enriched uranium until there is enough for several bombs. Then, he told the Americans, "Iran could decide to produce a bomb by 2010, but Iran is waiting for the right time in the future."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- 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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By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.
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