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How WikiLeaks trove will affect US-Arab cooperation on Iran, Yemen

The WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables could put Arab leaders in a tight spot – and make America's diplomatic dance a bit more awkward in the region.

By Staff writer, Laura KasinofCorrespondent / November 29, 2010

With framed photographs of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh (bottom r.), a man working in his shop is reflected in mirrors he's displaying for sale, in San'a, Yemen, Nov. 11. The WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables could put Arab leaders in a tight spot and could affect US-Arab cooperation on Iran, Yemen.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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Cairo; and Sanaa, Yemen

The first WikiLeaks release of raw intelligence from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars contained few shocking revelations. But the trove of diplomatic cables released Sunday is something else again, perhaps nowhere more so than for the Middle East.

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Though it's too soon to predict what impact they will have on government behavior, these products of US embassies throughout the region starkly contradict the public stances of some regional governments. In particular, they detail the extent to which Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers are afraid of Shiite Iran's nuclear program and growing regional influence – and their consequent willingness to support US-led military action against Iran.

While Iran has been given ammunition in its diplomatic dance with its regional rivals, and some of the countries may face limited blowback from angry citizens, the most immediate impact of the WikiLeaks release may not be a shift in strategy so much as in diplomacy. Arab leaders could well be reluctant to speak candidly with US diplomats, since America's ability to keep such conversation private has now been cast into doubt.

"[Arab governments'] security perceptions and threat perception of Iran are not going to change because of the leaks. They will presumably make similar assessments, just the diplomatic game will change," says Issandr el-Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo who runs the Arabist blog.

He also cautions that officials may be less than honest with US diplomats as well as their own people, in order to secure lucrative arms deals or other aims. The Obama administration is currently pushing for a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, whose cooperation could prove integral to any military strike on nearby Iran.

Arab attitudes

While the Sunni Arab leaders' fears are nothing new, it's generally been thought that they're not in favor of US military attacks on Iran. If they supported such an attack, they could face an angry response from their own populations over another US offensive on a Muslim nation. They may also have concerns about the economic damage an all-out war could produce – particularly if it disrupts oil exports along the Persian Gulf.

But the cables show some Arab regimes urging a reluctant US to take any steps necessary to head off Iran, something that's sharply at odds from these governments' more measured rhetoric. One US cable from 2008 recounts the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubair, telling a diplomat of Saudi King Abdullah's "frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program... he told you to cut the head off the snake."

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