The Secret Alliance: Cables Show Arab Leaders Fear a Nuclear Iran
The American embassy cables reveal that the front against a nuclear-armed Iran is broader than previously known. In private talks, Arab rulers have called for measures to be taken against the mullahs in Tehran before they can develop a nuclear bomb. But there is little consensus on how close Iran is to building the bomb.
"The Iranians are big, fat liars."
"Ahmadinejad is Hitler."
"Iran is like an octopus."
"Iran's nuclear program 'must be stopped by all means available'."
"Bomb Iran or live with an Iranian bomb."
These quotes do not come from the mouths of Israelis or Americans, but from politicians and rulers in Egypt, Jordan and Abu Dhabi. No one is as afraid of an Iranian bomb and no one hates the mullah-controlled country as much as the Arab leaders. That, at least, is the impression conveyed by the secret American embassy cables.
The cables suggest that the Arabs are afraid that an Iran with nuclear warheads would dominate them politically and militarily, and that it would subvert their semi-democracies, kingdoms and sheikhdoms.
"We are all terrified," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the Americans. The Sunni leaders in the Middle East are for sanctions, and some even support an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities -- anything that could curb Iran's influence. Of course, they never say any of this publicly, but only behind closed doors, to visiting American diplomats or cabinet secretaries. No topic dominates American Middle East policy as strongly as the fear of an Iranian atom bomb. The documents from the State Department in Washington now show how the Americans, Israelis and their secret allies attempt to encircle the regime in Tehran.
Shortly after Obama came into office in January 2009, he promised a new approach to Iran. He offered Tehran negotiations and incentives to abandon the controversial parts of its nuclear program. An important element of his offer involves bringing 1,200 kilograms of uranium from Iran's Natanz nuclear facility to Russia and France to be processed into fuel rods for Tehran's research reactor, where isotopes are produced for medical purposes. It was an offer that, as US Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman stressed, "was not offered out of naivete, but rather out of the view that if Iran agreed it would remove a significant amount of LEU (low enriched uranium) from Natanz and if Iran refused it would help build international support -- beginning with Russia and China -- for tougher sanctions."
The US pursued a dual strategy from the very beginning. It expressed a willingness to negotiate with Iran while at the same time preparing the ground for sanctions. The documents also suggest that it was making preparations for the possibility of a military strike.
In February 2009, even before Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as Israel's new prime minister, a US congressional delegation paid a visit to the Israeli politician. Netanyahu was pushing for tighter economic sanctions supported by a "credible military option." He told the delegation that sanctions would only work if the United States seriously threatened to attack Iran. This would remain Netanyahu's position, and it also appeared that the Americans adopted the strategy.
The first official meeting with the new Prime Minister Netanyahu took place a few weeks later. Now both sides were discussing sanctions and ways to restrict Iranian gasoline imports. Netanyahu urged the US to act quickly. He proposed a dialogue with a short deadline and concrete goals, such as talks with the Iranians for a period of four to 12 weeks, during which the United States would make it clear that the goal was to end Tehran's nuclear program.
The report reads: "Leaning forward, Netanyahu repeated his earlier question: "What will you do if it does not work?" He asked the question three times during the conversation, but no one answered.
Preparations in the Gulf
The start of 2009 marked the beginning of intensive talks with the Gulf States, which continued throughout the year. During the course of these discussions, it became clear that while most of the Gulf States were opposed to a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, they also expected an Israeli operation and were urgently preparing for Iranian reprisal attacks.
The United Arab Emirates were adamant about improving their joint military plans with the United States. They asked Washington to speed up the delivery of American weapons systems, "to respond to a worst-case scenario in Iran."
Mohammed bin Zayed, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi, said the "preparations must begin now well before commencement of hostilities." Bin Zayed, whom the Americans often referred to only as "MbZ," feared an Israeli attack and an Iranian retaliation before the end of the year, while the Americans assumed that a "military confrontation with Iran" could not happen before 2010.
"He (bin Zayed) is still worried that he does not have enough equipment in place to defend his people when war with Iran breaks out. (And for MbZ it is a matter of when, not if.)," an embassy report stated.
According to another embassy report, during a visit by Mike Hostage, the commander of the US Air Forces Central Command (Centcom) for the Middle East, the soldier told the crown prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, that the threat posed by Iran was leading the US to pursue a regional, integrated air and missile defense with the Gulf states. "Shaikh Salman welcomed this and stressed that Bahrain wanted to be part of the solution" of the Gulf states' "defense integration challenges."
Commander Hostage explained the details to the sheikh: "First, this involved integrating the US' own air and missile defense assets (Navy Aegis, Army Patriots, etc)." Then, according to Hostage, the Gulf States would be integrated into a joint early warning system. "The (crown prince) responded that this would be the largest game changer because it would be a permanent fixture and would affect Iran's ability to project (military) power."
The Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, had been beefing up their defenses to protect themselves against Iran for some time. In 2007, Sheikh bin Zayed pressed the Americans for the delivery of a shipment of Predator B drones. He also asked them to provide him with other weapons as quickly as possible, preferably right away, from US inventories in the region. In addition, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia wanted Patriot anti-aircraft missiles, which were to be installed in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Washington also promised to install the state-of-the-art THAAD defense system, which had only existed in the United States until then, within a year. The system is used to intercept shortrange and midrange missiles.
In June 2009, the Americans even met for "strategic consultations" with the rulers of Qatar, a country that was anxious not to alienate Iran. "That said, Qatar's leaders -- while careful not to say it publicly -- do not trust Iran; and Qatar does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons," the US embassy in Doha wrote in a cable to Washington.
The use of American bases for a possible attack is also a topic of discussion: "While few, least of all Qatar, want a military confrontation with Iran, the (United States Government) no doubt would want to use these Qatari facilities in any kinetic (editors: air strike) operations against Iran. Right now, we anticipate that Qatar would refuse to allow Qatari soil to be used to attack Iran, short of some sort of permanent USG security guarantee to Qatar, to include its offshore natural gas field shared with Iran."
Another concern that was addressed was the protection of critical infrastructure, like oil production facilities, refineries and ports. The United Arab Emirates and the Americans also revised plans to protect the Strait of Hormuz, through which 14 million barrels of oil are transported every day, in the event of a "crisis or confrontation."
Of course, the consequences of an attack on oil wells were also discussed. In an extensive report sent to Washington, the US ambassador in Doha analyzed the protection of critical infrastructure in Qatar, "which, if destroyed, disrupted or exploited might have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States." Qatar is the world's largest liquefied natural gas exporter and one the most important suppliers of natural gas to the United States.
The Americans benefit from the fear of Iranian retaliation. They are expanding their influence in the Gulf by making the countries of the region dependent on their military support, thereby bolstering one of the most important pillars of American global power.
The implementation of the agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States to protect critical infrastructure "has huge commercial potential, which could be measured in billions of dollars worth of contracts. More importantly, it would result in the largest expansion of US government influence in Saudi Arabia in a generation," the US Embassy in Riyadh wrote back in August 2008.
A year later, General David Petraeus said, during a visit to Beirut, that there was a "phenomenon in the Gulf states where leaders were worried someone would strike Iran's nuclear weapons program, while also worrying that someone would not." Iran, he continued, "had become Centcom's best recruiting tool, and the number of partnership and US military assistance agreements with Arab partners in the Gulf had increased significantly."
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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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