U.S. cables “wiki-leaked” show Gulf hawkish on Iran

Afshin Molavi

  • What are the most significant Wikileaks revelations?
The U.S. diplomatic cables portray the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain as very hawkish on Iran, even urging the United States to attack their Persian Gulf neighbor to forestall its nuclear program. Such views were never made public.

               - Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, emerges as the most hawkish, suggesting as far back as 2005 that Washington should strike Iranian targets.

               - Saudi King Abdullah allegedly called for the United States to attack Iran in an April 2008 meeting with General David Petraeus. The King reportedly said that the United States should “cut off the head of the snake.”

               - Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa told General Petraeus on Nov. 1, 2009, “That [nuclear] program must be stopped. The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.”

  • How will Tehran view these revelations?

At a press briefing on Nov. 29, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the cables “have no legal value and will not have the political effect they seek.” He said that the Wikileaks "game" is "not worth commenting upon and that no one would waste their time reviewing them," according to Iran’s Press TV. "The countries in the region are like friends and brothers and these acts of mischief will not affect their relations," he added.

But in the background, diplomatic relations, particularly with Gulf states, are likely to be strained. None of the positions is likely to surprise Iran, but the Saudi king’s reported remarks will particularly reverberate.

The cables show that the Saudi position is complicated, however. The sensational quote about “cutting off the head of the snake” was actually from Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al Jubeir, recounting the king’s views to a U.S. diplomat. Another cable indicates that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal – a close confidante of the king -- is far more skeptical about military action. Gulf ambassadors in Tehran will be busy “clarifying” remarks.

  • What does all of this mean for Iran-Saudi relations?

This will mark a low point, but not as serious as in the 1980s when Riyadh supported Iraq during its in its eight-year war with Iran, Saudi police killed hundreds of Iranian religious pilgrims in Mecca in 1987, and Ayatollah Khomeini called for the overthrow of the al-Sauds.

The king is directly quoted mainly on Iran’s role in Arab affairs. One U.S. cable reports the king’s account of his heated exchange with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. On Iran’s support for Hamas, the king said: “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab affairs.” The March 2009 cable said the king gave Mottaki an ultimatum to improve relations within one year. “After that, it will be the end,” he reportedly said—some 20 months ago. The Saudi-Iran rapprochement that began in the late 1980s and was bolstered by the close ties between the king (then Crown Prince Abdullah) and former Iranian Presidents Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Khatami (1997-2005) has clearly now deteriorated dramatically. The timing of the release is also awkward because the aging king is recuperating from medical treatment in the United States.
  • What do the cables reveal about other Gulf states positions on Iran?
Qatar: Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassim al Thani characterized Qatar’s relationship with Iran as one in which “they lie to us, and we lie to them.” But he claimed that he had often warned Tehran to take the threat of an Israeli or U.S. strike seriously.

Oman: Sultan Qaboos demonstrated the least concern with Iran’s nuclear program. He reportedly told U.S. envoys, “Iran is a big country with muscles and we must deal with it.” He dismissed Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz as posturing.

Dubai: The cables indicate a division among the United Arab Emirates leaders. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum reportedly does not share the hawkish views of his fellow emirate, Abu Dhabi

Read Afshin Molavi's chapter on Iran and the Gulf States in “The Iran Primer” 

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.