Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, has sought to shrug off the revelations contained in leaked US diplomatic cables that a number of Arab governments have been pushing the US to use military action to stop the Islamic republic’s controversial nuclear programme.
He described on Monday the release of the documents through WikiLeaks as “mischievous,” saying they had no value as they were being produced by the US government and implying the leaks were political motivated.
“The information is not leaked - [it] is being published regularly …and pursues political objectives,” Mr Ahmadi-Nejad told reporters. “The regional countries and Iran are friends and brothers of one another and such wickedness would have no influence on relations between nations.”
After the first batch of some 250,000 cables were released late on Sunday, much of the attention has focused on quotes and reports from Arab officials apparently urging the US to use any means, including military force, against Iran’s nuclear facilities and warning of a regional nuclear arms race should Tehran acquire a nuclear weapon.
A number of Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, are well known to take a hawkish stance towards Iran, amid concerns about its influence throughout the Middle East, as well as its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.
However, the explicit language used in the cables is likely to embarrass governments that traditionally shy away from publicly condemning their larger Shia neighbour.
In an April 2008 cable, the Saudi ambassador to Washington is quoted as telling US officials about King Abdullah’s “frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran” in one cable.
A year earlier, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi, told US officials that the nuclear programme should be delayed by “all means possible.”
“I am saying this knowing that I am putting my country at risk and placing myself in a dangerous spot,” he is quoted as saying.
Arab governments have not commented on the leaks, and while local media outlets have reported that US diplomatic cables have been leaked, most have avoided covering any details that might embarrass their officials.
Riad Kahwaji, at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says the silence is unsurprising, adding that the release of the supposedly secret reports will fuel conspiracy theories.
“It will be more or less seen in the context of conspiracy that there are some forces in the west that want to increase the divide with Iran,” he said. “The natural reaction here for many will be that Wikileaks is a tool for the people who want war.”
Analysts say one consequence will be a further sullying of the US’s image in the region, and far more caution when Arab officials next sit with their American counterparts.
“This is a strong blow to US credibility, I’m sure officials in the region will think twice before they meet with any US officials and disclose anything,” Mr Kahwaji said. “If the US can’t protect the content of supposedly secret meetings with allies these people will no longer be speaking their minds honestly.”
Sultan Al Qassemi, an Emirati commentator, said the leaks will complicate matters at a “critical junction in time for Gulf Arab relations with Iran.”
He says he was particularly surprised by the cables related to Qatar and Oman, which have closer ties to Iran than other Gulf states.
In a cable dated December 2009, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s powerful prime minister, is quoted as characterising his small state’s relationship with Iran as one in which “they lie to us, and we lie to them.”
In a 2008 cable, Lieutenant General Ali bin Majid al-Ma’amari, supreme commander of Oman’s armed forces, was quoted as advocating a non-military solution to the nuclear issue. But he also acknowledged that a nuclear-armed Iran as opposed to war with Iran posed “an extremely difficult dilemma for all of us.”
Mixed reaction from wider Arab world
In Saudi Arabia, which has been at the forefront of Arab efforts to counter Iran’s regional influence, some Saudis used Twitter and Facebook to express surprise that King Abdullah pushed for US strikes against Iran, and not Israel. Some analysts questioned whether the monarch would have made such comments himself, saying it is more likely that the aggressive statements were made by other Saudi officials.
“I find it very embarrassing for the king. It comes at a bad time when the king is perceived as a leader of the Muslim world and someone who is trying to promote dialogue,” said a Saudi analyst. “ Arab leaders never learn. They should never forget that there is no such thing as secret talks when talking with western leaders because they are obliged by law to release information.”
In Iran, Abbas, a government employee, dismissed fears about his country’s nuclear programme – which Tehran insists is purely for peaceful civilian purposes.
“Why should Saudi Arabia be concerned about Iran while many countries are pursuing nuclear programmes,” he said. “War between Iran and the United States is impossible, based on my knowledge. Saudi Arabia also knows that any war against Iran will first put its country’s interests in danger.”
Ramin, however, felt Saudi fears were justified given the unpredictibility of the Iranian government.
“Saudis must be afraid of us more than the US and Israel with such a regime that Iran has,” he said.
In Lebanon, people reacted with a mixture of curiosity and concern to the leaks, especially the revelations that Saudi and other Arab leaders had urged confrontation with Iran.
The country is currently living in fear of confrontation of its own between the opposition coalition, led by Hizbollah, the militant Shia movement backed by Syria and Iran, and the governing coalition, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, over an international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister.
“I’ve only read bits and pieces,” said Amas al Hibri. “It’s a bit humorous, it’s interesting to know more - overall I think it’s a good thing.”
But “it is not very pretty, it’s all factionally driven - Sunni, Shia,” he said.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, used the leaks to strengthen their case against Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was quoted by Israeli media as saying that: “more and more countries realise that Iran is the central threat.”
“But the countries in the region have a gap because they publicly are attached to the Israeli-Arab conflict but privately they realise that this narrative is not true,” he was quoted as saying. “They realise that the central threat is from Iran and now this has been revealed even though it was known. The question is where this leads. If they continue to not say it publicly, it won’t help.”.
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