Photo Gallery: Arab Rulers Urge Tough Action Against Iran

Foto: AFP

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.

The Prelude

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."

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.

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