The Arabs, Iran, and WikiLeaks

World leaders from Washington to Islamabad are increasingly engaged in a frantic attempt to contain the political damage of the WikiLeaks disclosures. The fact that many of the leaked cables expose U.S. foreign policy in a seemingly negative and contradictory light -- officials saying one thing in public and doing something entirely different in private -- has embarrassed an administration that has made multilateralism a key component of its grand strategy.

But what is less clear, particularly in media coverage of the leaks, is what the new WikiLeaks documents say about the policies and behavior of foreign governments. Indeed, just as Julian Assange and his cohorts exposed controversies in the U.S. diplomatic establishment, the organization has also uncovered significant amounts of information on how foreign dignitaries view the world and conduct state business. 

The Middle East, the region that many policymakers have been concentrating on for the past ten years, is particularly prominent in the latest WikiLeaks document dump. Arab leaders are painted in a light that statesmen would rather like to avoid -- elitist, disconnected from the citizenry, and extremely zero-sum when deciding policy. A segment in one cable between Qatari Prime Minister al-Thani and U.S. Senator John Kerry serves as an example:

HBJ observed that President Mubarak of Egypt is thinking about how his son can take his place and how to stave off the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government, said HBJ, has jailed 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members without bringing court cases against them. The Egyptian "people blame America" now for their plight. The shift in mood on the ground is "mostly because of Mubarak and his close ties" to the United States.

In other words, Hosni Mubarak's main priority is maintaining his grip on power and paving the way for a smooth and successful transition to his son. Neither objective ameliorates the numerous social and political problems that millions of Egyptians are facing on a daily basis. 

However fascinating the leaks have been on the front pages, most of the cables concerning the Middle East are highly consistent with what academics and policymakers have been saying about the region for years. The leaks portray the Middle East as a competitive region governed by realist leaders, as has largely been the case throughout Arab political history, both during and after the Cold War. 

What is intriguing about Assange's latest hijack is how complex and divided the Middle East actually is over important policy discussions, especially in terms of the major strategic challenges Arab elites categorize as dangerous and/or urgent. Iran's nuclear program is widely feared by the vast majority of Arab regimes, all of which desperately want to ensure that Tehran does not expand its influence into the Sunni-dominated areas of the region. Of course, this revelation is not surprising, given the Arab world's historical disagreements with Iran. This year alone, Arab officials have lobbied, both discreetly and publicly, for an aggressive American response in order to damper Iran's nuclear intentions. 

The problem that Arab governments face is how to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. And as the cables point out, rulers across the region are deeply conflicted about the best course of action. In one conversation released in the latest WikiLeaks trove, Saudi King Abdullah stressed to American interlocutors that the United States must take matters into its own hands (i.e., a military strike) before Tehran's nuclear program reaches a point of no return. The Saudi Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, recommended in another discussion that Washington takes a more pragmatic approach through a period of extensive dialogue, thereby taking the threat of force off the table in the short term. Meanwhile, Kuwait is unsure of how to respond to the Iranians, Jordan believes that countering the appeal of "radicalism" is the most effective option for success, and Oman requests that international organizations get more involved in the entire negotiating process.

The point here is twofold. First, American and Israeli officials can be assured that the United States and Israel are not the only two actors in the international community concerned with Iran's nuclear program and Tehran's foreign policy behavior. Arabs are just as aware of the Iranian "boogeyman" as the Americans and Israelis, which should give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama a relatively short sigh of relief. 

It is the second point, however, that is much more important: Arabs are deeply divided over what policy should be towards the Islamic Republic. Should Iran's program be curtailed through force, or is the present track of negotiation and economic coercion appropriate to subdue the threat? As the nuclear standoff continues, the answer is still elusive, for each recommendation has its share of costs and benefits.

What is clear, at least from these cables, is that pan-Arabism in the Middle East has been overwhelmed by tendencies of realism and realpolitik. Unfortunately, the lack of a unified position in the Arab community only adds more ambivalence to an already complicated international problem.