WikiLeaks Lesson: Deception Par for the Course in Mideast Diplomacy

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Majid Asgari / Mehr News / Reuters

Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, right, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second from right, participate in a ceremony for Ahmadinejad's arrival in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 5, 2010

The latest WikiLeaks diplomatic-document dump carries its own disclaimer. It's in the title of cable 09DOHA728, sent from the U.S. embassy in Doha, the capital of Qatar, under the following header: QATAR'S PRIME MINISTER ON IRAN: "THEY LIE TO US; WE LIE TO THEM." Indeed. The art of concealing true intent and attitude while purporting to speak frankly is as old as diplomacy itself, and hardly confined to encounters between Iranians and Qataris. It would be naive to imagine that the same principle didn't apply in conversations between the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.

There's little of surprise in the documents released thus far, although they contain plenty of material to embarrass many key U.S. allies in the region simply by broadcasting things that are typically said discreetly. The initial headlines on the documents' impact on the Middle East focused on revelations that some key moderate Arab allies of the U.S. have exhorted Washington to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. That news will be gleefully seized upon by those in Israel and the U.S. who urge the same course of action, but it will severely embarrass the regimes thus implicated. After all, it's not as if the region's pro-U.S. monarchs reflect the views of their citizenry — on the contrary, in this year's edition of the authoritative University of Maryland poll of Arab public opinion, 57% of respondents said that Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons would have a positive effect on the region. So the revelation that their governments have urged the U.S. to launch a third war against a Muslim country will land those monarchs in hot water at home, and possibly in their neighborhoods.

It's not news that the politically brittle Arab regimes most threatened by the popular enthusiasm for Iran's confrontational posturing would like to see Tehran taken down a few pegs. But that's unlikely to change U.S. calculations. The Pentagon's argument against bombing, reiterated last week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is that it wouldn't stop Iran's nuclear program but would simply set it back by a year or two. Besides the potentially disastrous backlash that could imperil U.S. interests throughout the region, Gates argued that bombing would strengthen Tehran's regime and ensure that it goes ahead and builds the ultimate deterrent weapons — a decision it has not yet taken, according to the U.S. intelligence consensus.

Having gone out on a limb to urge a course of action that the U.S. is showing no signs of taking, those regimes could even in the coming months be forced to distance themselves from that position through extravagant displays of symbolic rapprochement with Iran — whose ability to mess with their stability and interests is considerable. Weak regimes in tough neighborhoods tend to hedge their bets. Indeed, on the same day that the WikiLeaks story broke, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi protégé, was in Tehran expressing support for Iran's nuclear rights and looking to avoid any confrontation over a looming U.N. report that is said to indict Iran's protégé, Hizballah, in the 2005 murder of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

But the embarrassment brought on by the latest WikiLeaks revelations is hardly confined to those Arab states that have advocated bombing Iran. There's considerable documentation of the regional competition between Qatar and the Saudis and Egyptians when it comes to playing the role of regional peace broker, with the Qataris' emphasis on rapprochement with the likes of Iran and the Palestinian Hamas movement leading some of their Arab rivals to characterize them as patsies of Iran in discreet conversations with U.S. diplomats. And then there's the revelation, from Israeli officials, that a number of U.S. allies in the Gulf feel that their views are so routinely ignored by Washington that they have taken to relaying messages via Israel, which they know has the ear of those in power in the U.S. But any sense of strategic intimacy between Israel and even these most conservative Arab regimes is undercut by the cables' revelation that Israeli officials have constantly questioned some of the goodies included in U.S. arms sales to those regimes, making clear their suspicion that such weapons could one day be turned against Israel.

There's plenty of embarrassment heaped on U.S. Arab allies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak tells U.S. officials, for example, that his government consulted with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptian government ahead of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli offensive in Gaza in the winter of 2008-09 that left some 1,300 Palestinians dead. (Abbas on Monday denied the suggestion, although he could also claim in his defense that by Barak's own account, he turned down the Israeli proposal that he ride into Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank to restore his control there — as did the Egyptians.) Israeli officials also warn the Americans that Abbas, with whom they're seeking negotiations, is so politically weak that he's unlikely to remain in power beyond 2011.

Even the Israelis sometimes emerge in an unflattering light in the cables, in which Israeli officials perennially present a minutes-to-midnight reading of Iran's nuclear capability to U.S. officials. In 2005, for example, they warn that the Islamic Republic would "pass a point of no return" in nuclear capability when it mastered the process of uranium enrichment. (Iran, of course, passed that milestone early in 2006.) In the spring of 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned visiting American officials that Israel's experts believed Iran was one to two years away from having nuclear weapons, but by the summer Mossad chief Meir Dagan was warning that Iran was capable of producing its first nuclear weapon by 2014. Some U.S. officials began to note that the steady stream of worst-case assessments from Israeli officials in meetings with their U.S. counterparts may have a political intent.

A cable from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv last year on a meeting between Pentagon officials and Israeli generals included the following: "General Baidatz argued that it would take Iran one year to obtain a nuclear weapon and two and a half years to build an arsenal of three weapons. By 2012 Iran would be able to build one weapon within weeks and an arsenal within six months. (COMMENT: It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States)."

Choosing your words carefully to produce the desired response in an interlocutor is, after all, the lingua franca of diplomacy.