My recent Tehran Bureau article: With WikiLeaks’ release of over 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables between the US and its allies, politicians and specialists on Iran are falling over themselves to highlight Iran’s regional isolation and the threat posed by its nuclear program. Israeli premier Benyamin Netanyahu, for instance, leveraged the leaks to vindicate his official stance on Iran, saying, “The documents show many sources backing Israel’s assessments, particularly of Iran… that Iran is the threat.” (1)
The cables illustrate that senior officials in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel have been privately campaigning the United States to do their bidding and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, alleging that Iran and its nuclear program constitute an “existential threat.” The cables also expose duplicitous behavior for some, namely Saudi Arabia, whose ambassador to Iran only recently described Saudi-Iranian relations as “brotherly” and urged further cooperation, citing “common viewpoints” that necessitate “the continuance of consultation between the two countries.” (2)
As news agencies continue to scour the files, it remains too early to make sweeping conclusions. Nevertheless, a closer look at the cables released thus far coupled with recent developments in the region could reveal an alternative analysis: Iran is not in fact isolated but is an emerging regional power whose rise proves that there is no consensus on the threat it poses and whether the Persian Gulf country should be attacked. Furthermore, their behind-the-scenes campaigning for an American attack on Iran also exposes their own regimes’ inability and reluctance to face the new balance of power themselves. Lastly, the diplomatic cables demonstrate the necessity of differentiating between the view of a few unrepresentative Arab regimes and that of the general population.
A brief survey of 2010 illustrates how Iran’s influence in the region is growing both through state relations and on the popular level. Indeed, poll results indicate that unlike the private communications of the above Arab regimes (Israel is excluded here as a non-Arab country), the majority of the people of the Arab world do not perceive Iran to be a threat and view the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb as, in fact, favorable.
Iran-Iraq relations is a critical case in point. On March 7, 2010, Iraqis once again went to the polls to elect a new government. The elections, however, failed to produce a clear winner and an eight-month political deadlock ensued in Baghdad. One by one, Iraqi politicians made their way to neighboring Iran to facilitate a breakthrough, implicitly acknowledging Iran as the main powerbroker in Iraq. This is an important point that must not be understated. While in 2003, it was the US-led coalition that brought the Ba’athist regime crumbling down, facilitating the electoral process that allowed such politicians to contend for power, today, it is Iran and not the US that is the main arbiter in Iraq. So decisive is the Iranian role in Iraq that it has caused the envy and competition of Iran’s rivals. For example, Saudi Arabia, an Arab country, tried to supplant non-Arab Iran as mediator by inviting Iraqi politicians to Riyadh on October 31. Iraqi officials refused, voicing, of all things, “fears over foreign interference.” (3) That a Saudi role in ending the electoral standoff is considered foreign influence while countless Iraqi politicians visited Iran seeking support for their respective faction attests to Iran’s burgeoning role in Iraq.
Iranian influence in Iraq is not limited to political parties, but also extends to the street. Indeed, it is rumored that Iran is orchestrating the transformation of the Sadrist movement of the powerful and populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been in Iran for the past few years, into a Hizbullah-esque state-within-a-state. (4)
In addition to Iraq, Iran-Syria relations have never been better. When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Syria in February 2010, his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar al-Asad, announced an agreement annulling entry visas between the two countries, adding, “This agreement would result in more communication and enhancing the common interests of the Syrian and Iranian peoples… Bilateral relations cannot remain confined to the political domain for decades… I believe this agreement will push relations along this direction, and will further enhance the relations at all levels and in all sectors.” (5)
As for Lebanon, Ahmadinejad’s much publicized October visit to the country prompted a senior Israeli official to equate the visit with that of “a commander coming to inspect his troops.” (6) As co-founder of Hizbullah, one of the world’s most powerful guerrilla movements, Iran’s continued financial, military, and spiritual and political support means that Iranian influence in the Levant is a solid long-term reality.
Iran’s support of militant groups is not confined to a sectarian Shi’ite agenda; its backing of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip is a testament to this wider strategy.
Iran’s allies extend beyond the Arab states of the Middle East. Relations between Iran and Turkey are also at an all-time high. In June 2010, Turkey defied its longtime American ally and voted against the United Nations Security Council resolution which slapped Iran with another round of sanctions for its nuclear program, leading two-time presidential hopeful John McCain to quip that Turkey’s nay vote was an “obvious thumb in the eye.” (7)
To the east, Iran’s political clout dates back to the days when the Iranians, along with the Indian government, funded and sustained the resistance against the Taliban – the same resistance that rode to power atop the American effort to topple the Taliban after 9/11. Today, Iran cements its relations with the resistance-borne Karzai regime with millions of dollars in funds. In October, Afghan president Hamid Karzai defended his acceptance of such large amounts of monetary support, saying, “They want good relations in return… Afghanistan and Iran have neighborly relations… We have also asked lots of things in return in this relationship … so it’s a relationship between neighbors. It will go on and we’ll continue to ask for cash help from Iran.”
Indeed, Iran is far from isolated in the region, to say nothing of its allies outside the Middle East.
Beyond state actors, recent polls belie Saudi, Jordanian, Egypt, and Emirati official statements that Arabs believe Iran is the biggest threat facing the region. Conversely, the poll found that “large majorities of Arabs list the United States and Israel as the region’s worst enemies, far above Iran…” and that a “nuclear-armed Iran would be a positive development in the Middle East.” (8)
Contrary to the opinions of some specialists and politicians, this alternative analysis of the confidential cables affirms several points: Iran is not in fact isolated and that its influence is expanding throughout the region, so much so, that it causes Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian, Emirati, and Israeli officials great anxiety; Iran’s emergence and these governments’ private pleas for help from the United States demonstrate these governments’ inability to come to terms with the new political landscape of the Middle East; the private Arab cables show how these regimes do not reflect the will of the majority of the Arab world, who according to recent polls consider Israel and the US to be a much larger threat to the region than Iran.
Iran has powerful opponents and is still reeling from the 2009 post-election turmoil and a strict sanctions regime, but it is far from isolated, as many contend. Most importantly, there is no consensus on an attack on Iran, despite the lobbying efforts of a few Arab regimes and Israel. The Obama administration would do well to consider the reality of Iranian influence in the region because an attack on Iran premised on the false notion that the Persian Gulf power is isolated and unpopular in the region could be a disastrous miscalculation.
(1) Ravid, Barak. “Netanyahu: WikiLeaks cables prove Israel is right on Iran.” Haaretz. Nov. 29, 2010. <http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/netanyahu-wikileaks-cables-prove-israel-is-right-on-iran-1.327653>.
(2) “‘Iran-Saudi relations positive for region.’” PressTV. Oct. 26, 2010. <http://www.presstv.ir/detail/148349.html>.
(3) “Iraqi Shia bloc rejects Saudi offer.” Al-Jazeera English. Oct. 31, 2010. <http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/10/2010103183433616942.html>
(4) Moubayed, Sami. “Muqtada unleashes new, improved army.” Asia Times Online. Apr 20, 2010. <http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/LD30Ak02.html>.
(5) “Syria, Iran ink deal on annulling entry visa.” People’s Daily Online. Feb 25, 2010. <http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90777/90854/6902834.html>.
(6) Ravid, Barak. “’Ahmadinejad visit proves Lebanon has joined axis of extreme nations.’” Haaretz. Oct. 13, 2010. <http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/ahmadinejad-visit-proves-lebanon-has-joined-axis-of-extreme-nations-1.318905>.
(7) Harvey, Benjamin. “Erdogan Rebuffs U.S., Insists Turkey Isn’t Iran Ally.” Bloomberg Businessweek. June 17, 2010. <http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-06-17/erdogan-rebuffs-u-s-insists-turkey-isn-t-iran-ally-update2-.html>.
(8) LaFranchi, Howard. “New poll: angry at US, Arabs support an Iran nuclear bomb.” The Christian Science Monitor. Aug. 6, 2010. <http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/0806/New-poll-angry-at-US-Arabs-support-an-Iran-nuclear-bomb>.