The Post-WikiLeaks World – Part I

Behind closed doors, government officials often relay sentiments that differ from public proclamations, and the public takes this for granted. But release of classified US State Department cables via WikiLeaks has exposed hundreds of specific examples, shocking in their rawness. The release underlines the promises and perils of fast global communications. It is a world where an individual can disrupt global strategic plans, and all-powerful governments scramble to contain the damage. It's a dramatic display of the contradictions between private and public pronouncements and between calls for freedom of expression and the need for secrecy. Given the plethora of serious issues raised by the release of the WikiLeaks cables, the controversy and debates over their content leaving no corner of the world untouched, YaleGlobal launches with this issue an occasional series on the fallout from the cables, exploring diplomacy, democracy, defense and justice. In the first article of this two-part series, Jamsheed K. Choksy focuses on the impact of the leaked cables on Iran’s nuclear policy. Choksy writes that, while Iran may be encouraged to learn how the US feels resigned about its nuclear program, the nation would do well to note its increasing isolation. Other cables showing deep US concern about authoritarian and corrupt rule by its allies may help improve the US image in the region. – YaleGlobal

The Post-WikiLeaks World – Part I

Iran may be emboldened by the cable revelations, but overconfidence could be costly
Jamsheed K. Choksy
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA: The impact of vast numbers of purloined US State Department cables released on the Web will be analyzed for years to come, but one pattern emerges: While they seem to have emboldened Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons, they also show the extent of its isolation in the world. Unvarnished US assessment of the corrupt and authoritarian regimes of North Africa and the Middle East may also restore the Arab street’s faith in the US at Iran’s expense.

That December’s nuclear talks at Geneva between the UN Security Council members, European Union and Iran yielded no results is not surprising. But this time Iranian negotiators were encouraged in their hard-line position by information revealed in the WikiLeaks-released cables.

At first glance, the leaked US government communications suggest much is going Iran’s way. There is despondency about the inevitability of a nuclear Iran. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed commented: “Any culture that is patient and focused enough to spend years working on a single carpet is capable of waiting years to achieve even greater goals.” There is dissent between nations on whether sanctions can be enforced effectively and if even military strikes would work. As US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote to his French counterpart, such actions may “only delay Iranian plans.” Several countries including China and North Korea still facilitate Iran’s procurement of weapons another set of cables reveal. EU nations hinder efforts at halting Iran’s illicit fiscal activities, fearing Americans will regain “commercial advantage” there when a diplomatic deal is reached, diplomats in London noted.

The cables confirm that some Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made private calls for action to “cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake.” But as soon as their words became public, they quickly disowned such comments calling them “blatantly false.” They do so fearing Iranian retaliation. Indeed, WikiLeaks make it clear that while many Arab nations including Bahrain want “Iran’s ambitions stopped,” they wish the US and/or Israel “to do the job for them.”

Likewise the documents are candid that Iran has hindered US attempts to generate positive political, social, and economic conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is evident too that nations playing no major roles in those stabilization and reconstruction efforts, even ones proximate to Iraq and Afghanistan, are quick to blame the US rather than Iran. So King Abdullah lamented: “Iraq has been given to Iran as a gift on a golden platter.”

Not unexpectedly, the WikiLeaks are being read by Iranian leaders as evidence that their nation has become central to world affairs. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scoffed: “When they say Iran has become isolated, it means Iran has become globalized.” They see the State Department’s internal discussions as proof the Islamic Republic can continue to hold the US and EU at bay because nations lack political will and popular support to really threaten Iran.

Moreover, owing to the WikiLeaks cables, Tehran is concluding that US intelligence-gathering and other covert actions are sparse within Iran and, therefore, of no special threat to the regime’s existence or to its nuclear program.

Similarly, despite deeply mistrusting its Arab neighbors, Iran continues a public façade of cooperation with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Arab leaders relayed, according to the cables, they cannot resort to action against Tehran alone. So they work around WikiLeaks by joining with Ahmadinejad in claiming: “We neighboring countries are friends, and these malicious moves will have no effect on our relations.”

Consequently, in the wake of WikiLeaks, Iran’s leaders feel less pressure to rush into accepting a nuclear deal or any other accommodations with the West. They can afford to hold out for the best possible terms, seeking a grand bargain that would work mostly to their advantage, confident that even US and Israeli intelligence services have concluded, as a leaked cable put it, if the country “decided to go nuclear, nothing will stop it.”

Yet, Iranian reading of the cables may be overconfident and hasty.

The leaked documents indicate the emergence of a clear consensus about the threat posed by Iran. Cables show that most countries “do not want Iran possessing nuclear weapons” and “do not believe” Iranian claims it is pursuing “only peaceful nuclear energy.” Australia, for instance, is said to fear proliferation and destabilization will result even if Iran seeks only defensive nuclear capability.

The WikiLeaks cables also suggest that several moderate Arab countries including its southern neighbors Qatar and Oman, plus superpowers like Russia and China, feel Iran is blocking an amicable resolution to the standoff with the international community. The Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, “offered to open a dialogue,” American diplomats in Doha noted. Jordan’s King Abdullah II would do the same, the US embassy in Amman reported. Those nations see Iran as stalling rather than negotiating in good faith, and so desire a change in attitude by Tehran. Even Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, while still supporting talks, is described as concluding that it is not currently possible “to believe a word of what the Iranians have to say.”

Iranian leaders wager that standing up to the US gains popularity among ordinary Arabs. Yet, hitherto secret US assessments that leaders in places like Cairo and Tunis are “dictators” who are tarnished by “the perception that corruption is prevalent” and “disregard suggestions for political reform” demonstrate America’s genuine concern for Middle Easterners. Likewise, American diplomats caution in their correspondence that Egyptians’ will may be thwarted by presidential power passing to Mubarak’s son Gamal. US warnings that aid and cooperation with countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan may cease “if corruption indicators worsen” there gives hope to oppressed Middle Easterners, whereas Iran’s actions offer none. So the WikiLeaks may ultimately prove to be a boon for the US among Arab populations while working against Iran – especially as Tehran’s leaders are also regarded by many inside and outside that country as despots who, in order to preserve personal perks, resist political, economic, and social changes that would be beneficial to their citizens.

Likewise individuals and groups around the world troubled by Tehran’s human rights violations, read on WikiLeaks that the US remains committed to “bettering conditions” for the average Iranian. So the US image has not been tarnished as badly as Iran’s autocrats would like to believe – and nowhere as negatively as images of Basij paramilitary-men and Islamic Revolutionary Guards beating civilians seeking fair elections.

Globalization has made Iran everyone’s “shared problem” – as the WikiLeaks demonstrate. From Washington to Auckland, the prospect of an Iran bearing nuclear weapons sits ill. So the realism that Iran “doesn’t have a single ally among our neighbors,” noted by opposition leaders, will sink home in Tehran after exuberance fueled by the sensationalism of WikiLeaks ebbs. Then Iran is likely to go back to diplomatic haggling with the international community in January 2011 at Istanbul under the auspices of Turkey – a Muslim neighbor without atomic warheads which seeks peaceful resolution. Indeed, Iranian newspapers are already sounding a conciliatory note: “positive steps are being taken in the right direction toward a solution.” After all, a September poll also revealed that 75 percent of Iranians want closer ties with the world.


Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Central Eurasian, Iranian, Islamic, and International studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the US National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.
Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization