WikiLeaks II: Saudi Arabia on Iran — “Cut off the head of the snake”

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the second in the series.

There’s already been quite a bit of response to WikiLeaks documents suggesting that Arab regimes tend to view the Iranian administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as nothing less than evil incarnate. This is nothing surprising, I suppose, though the degree to which initial reports of Saudi Arabia’s pressuring of Washington to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran have proved accurate is disheartening in the extreme.

The Los Angeles Times reports that

King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were among the Arab leaders lobbying the U.S. for an attack on Iran. One Saudi official reminded Americans that the king had repeatedly asked them to “cut off the head of the snake” before it was too late.

“That program must be stopped,” one Nov. 4, 2009, cable quotes Khalifa as telling Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. “The danger of letting it go is greater than the danger of stopping it.”

While this sort of thing probably plays well with Sarah Palin and her ideological ilk, it’s discouraging just how far Arab leaders have gone to cheer on the burgeoning movement within the United States to take on Tehran.

In a May 2005 meeting, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, urged a U.S. general to use “ground forces” against Iran even though, another cable notes, the federation did not abide by U.S. requests to interdict suspicious shipments transiting from its shores to Iran. A February 2010 document attributes Bin Zayed’s “near-obsessive” arms buildup to his fears about Iran.

“I believe this guy is going to take us to war,” Mohamed bin Zayed told a U.S. delegation in April 2006 of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “It’s a matter of time. Personally, I cannot risk it with a guy like Ahmadinejad. He is young and aggressive.”

In December 2009, the crown prince told a U.S. official: “We know your priority is Al Qaeda, but don’t forget Iran. Al Qaeda is not going to get a nuclear bomb.”

It’s certainly true that these are hardly revelatory insights into Middle Eastern regional affairs, but the Times seems correct to note that what is surprising is the depth of Arab fear of Iranian intentions.

And it’s not just Arab leaders that are worried. Ahmadinejad has also squandered what had been a decent amount of support from Arab moderates throughout the region, but who increasingly “view Ahmadinejad’s administration as oppressive, unpopular, and undemocratic, much as they criticize many Arab governments.”

Interestingly, this same leaked cable observes that

all of the Arab media figures we spoke to emphasized that Arab criticism of Ahmadinejad has not necessarily led to increased support for US policy in the region. On the contrary, closer analysis suggests that Ahmadinejad’s eroding popularity in the Arab world has created a scenario in which any U.S. effort to engage the current Iranian government will be perceived by a wide spectrum of Arabs as accommodation with Ahmadinejad.

Moreover,

All of the Arab commentators and news media figures we spoke to agreed that the U.S. “played it right” throughout the post-election crisis by staying away from detailed public comments that could be perceived as interventionist. However, the Arab commentators were quick to distinguish between criticism of Ahmadinejad in the Arab street and support for U.S. policies. The Syrian media consultant said that the heated debates before the election, in which the three challengers — Mousavi, Karroubi, and Reza’i — publicly criticized Ahmadinejad for corruption and economic mismanagement, made it clear to Arabs that this election was about Iran, not the U.S. This distinction, coupled with the U.S.’ restraint in commenting on the election, provided an unprecedented window for Arab commentators to criticize Ahmadinejad without appearing to side with the U.S.

Still, the cable ends on a depressing note by highlighting the fact that dealing responsibly with Iran will only strain Washington’s relationship with the Arab Middle East.

Once the dust settles on Iran’s post-election crisis, Arabs will look to see if the U.S. deals with Ahmadinejad as it pursues its nuclear nonproliferation agenda despite the lingering questions over the legitimacy of his election. If the U.S. enters negotiations with Ahmadinejad’s government, moderate Arab observers may argue that the U.S., for the sake of its own national interest, has cut a deal at the expense of pro-democracy advocates — just as many in the Arab street believe the U.S. has done with a number of Arab regimes. Those Arabs who continue to support Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, may perceive negotiations as a personal victory for a humble leader who brought the U.S. to its knees through steadfast resistance. Thus, Ahmadinejad’s “fall from grace” in the Arab world may have created yet another obstacle to improved Arab perceptions of the U.S. — in which engagement with an Ahmadinejad-led government is now a potentially lose-lose scenario in which Arabs at both ends of the pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad spectrum will consider negotiations with Teheran an accommodation with the Iranian president.

Lose-lose indeed.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.