Commentary: WikiLeaks exposed no real secrets about Middle East

The Miami HeraldDecember 6, 2010 

What have we learned so far from the WikiLeaks trove of secret documents?

We have discovered that what American diplomats say behind closed doors is not terribly different from what they say in front of open microphones. The tone changes a bit, and the diplomatic jargon and niceties fall away. But, from what we have seen so far, the overall policy objectives seem to align rather closely with what officials say in public.

Not so in the Middle East, where the cables confirm some of the worst fears of the region's many conspiracy theorists. Shock of shocks, Iran's Arab neighbors fear Tehran much more than they fear Israel. And, horror of horrors, a number of Arab countries get along with Israel much better than they claim.

The WikiLeaks documents detail dozens of meetings in which Arab leaders urge Washington to take military action against Iran's nuclear program. This comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who follows the region closely or who has talked to people in the Arab world. Arab leaders have carefully avoided speaking out against Iran's nuclear program, or about Tehran's aims to dominate the region, or its support for terrorist organizations.

In private, however, all of these fears emerge clearly and urgently. While Arab leaders frequently declare Israel is the main threat to the region, in private they express no such concern. Instead, there's the King of Saudi Arabia demanding that Washington ``cut off the head of the snake,'' a wish repeated frequently by his Arab neighbors.

We have often heard Israel describe Iran as an existential threat. But never before did we have a record of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi calling Iran the ``primary external threat'' to his country, nothing less than an ``existential'' threat.

Arab leaders express certainty that Iran seeks nuclear weapons -- and more. Oman's top military commander warns of Tehran's ``expansionist ideological desires,'' and a long series of Arab leaders complain about Tehran's support for terrorist organizations and its meddling in their countries' affairs. Their conclusion, in the words of Bahrain's King Hamad: Iran ``must be stopped.''

Surprisingly, the WikiLeaks cables show one Middle Eastern leader making a strong argument for using economic sanctions against Iran. None other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues forcefully for using stringent sanctions before trying anything else, saying the sanctions actually have a chance of bringing down the regime. Shock of shocks, that's exactly what the prime minister has been saying in public. How confusing.

It seems democratic governments are more truthful than their undemocratic counterparts. Another shocker.

I doubt that Arab leaders have fooled many of their own people with their duplicitous remarks, although in other countries, far from the Middle East, some may take their public words at face value.

At home, the unelected Arab regimes fear their people. So, they try to say what they think the people want to hear. That's why they prefer to act as if nothing is more important to them than the Palestinian cause. But Iran is what keeps them awake at night, much as it does Israelis. It's hardly a surprise, then, that they secretly have less-than-terrible relations.

One of the documents describes a ``good personal relationship'' between then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Ibn Zayed, and it refers to secret long-standing conversations between Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the UAE. In fact, there's evidence of friendly interaction between Israel and most Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, complete with talks between Saudi Arabia and Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's secret service, the Mossad.

Now that the yawning gap between what Arab leaders' public and private priorities and actions has been uncovered, the question is what will happen next.

They could come clean and openly tell the truth, openly challenge Iran, openly befriend Israel. Or, they might stop all contact with Israel, and retrench on their requests to the United States regarding Iran, apologizing to the Islamic Republic and mending fences with the regime they fear will soon become the most powerful in the region.

There's another route. They might deny it all, say the WikiLeaks documents are false, maybe claim they were planted by the CIA or the Mossad, swear they never met an Israeli they didn't hate and never had a negative thought about Iran. They could, horror of horrors, continue to lie.

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