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.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
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.

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.

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."

Another cable from 2009 quotes Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, also a close US ally, calling "forcefully for taking action to terminate [Iran's] nuclear program, by whatever means necessary." Bahrain hosts America's Fifth Fleet, the naval command responsible for the Persian Gulf – and thus likely to take a lead role in any confrontation with Iran.

Egypt has been somewhat more measured, expressing both alarm at Iran's ambitions and its own fears of how its people will react if it speaks out too forcefully or becomes publicly engaged. One cable describes a 2008 meeting between Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, in which the Egyptian president called the Iranians "big, fat liars" and state sponsors of terrorism. "But I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation," the cable reported him as saying.

Israel greeted the WikiLeaks download as vindication of its Iran policy, taking apparent delight in the public confirmation that their Arab neighbors share their fears about Tehran.

But Wayne White, former deputy director of Middle East desk at the State Department’s Bureau for Intelligence and Research, cautions that the revelations don't amount to Arab states seeking common cause with Israel.

“They don’t view themselves as part and parcel of some policy that Israel is a part of. They don’t see themselves in any kind of conspiracy, or as more amenable to things like being interested in contact with Israel,” says Mr. White, now a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. “They fear Israel in this light: Israel is most likely to strike Iran and most likely to do it incompletely, leaving a wounded beast at their front door.”

Yemen's veil is lifted

Yemen too, is presented as reluctant to be honest with its own people about its relationship with the US on another key security question: the activity of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which appears to be ramping up attacks against the West – including the recent cargo bomb plot.

For the past year, the US has been thought to be conducting air strikes in the country against militant Islamists, with Yemen's permission. Yemen has publicly denied that; its populace is staunchly opposed to any US intervention. But one of the cables appears to remove the fig-leaf of plausible deniability, which could compromise counterterrorism efforts there.

"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," said Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to US Central Command Gen. David Petraeus, according to a cable. His comment came after Petraeus guaranteed that US foreign aid to Yemen would more than double in 2010.

The cable, from Jan. 4, 2010, was authored by former US ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche, and is the first official evidence that the United States carried out air strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen in December 2009.

The cable also confirms that the Yemeni government agreed to American air power circling just out of sight of Yemeni territory, set to strike Al Qaeda targets in Yemen as soon as intelligence is available as to their whereabouts.

Will Arab leaders pay a price for 'diplomatic heresy'?

Both the United States and Yemen have tried to downplay America’s role in Yemen, where the central government – beset by economic woes, a southern secession movement, and tribal tensions – can ill afford to spark popular discontent.

“For Yemeni people, from the beginning they did not believe the government claims that air strikes against in Al Majala and elsewhere were carried out by Yemeni forces," says Aidroos Al Naqeeb, the chairman of the Yemen’s opposition Socialist Party's parliamentary bloc. "The importance of what WikiLeaks has revealed is that it defines the foreign party who actually carried out the attacks. It is so regretful that Yemeni government not only allowed such crimes against human lives and rights, but also it claimed responsibility.”

The Yemeni embassy in Washington and the American embassy in Sanaa refused to comment on the leaked cable on Monday.

Ahmed Al Zurqa, author of a book on Al Qaeda in Yemen, warned that American military action in Yemen will help AQAP recruit Yemenis who don't want to see their administration acting as a puppet of the United States. “Al Qaeda is using the mistakes of these operations,” such as civilian casualties, to gain recruits, he said. "The people here hate terrorism, but they also hate intruders who come and kill Yemenis."

George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch writes in his Foreign Policy blog that the "million dollar question" is whether we find out if Arab regimes' "fears of expressing these views in public" were justified.

"Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion?"

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