Analysis: Notes from an undeclared cold war
By JONATHAN SPYER
The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks offer details of Iran's push for regional dominance in the Middle East.
The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this week confirm that the
key strategic process taking place in the Middle East is the push for regional
dominance by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The documents show that the
Iranian nuclear program is only the most worrisome element of a broader effort,
as there is additional evidence of Iranian involvement and interference in
political processes across the region.
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The method depicted and discussed
is familiar: Local Islamist proxies are located, organized and exploited (the
creation of “mini-Hizbullahs” in Saudi King Abdullah’s memorable words used in
one of the cables), and influence is accumulated through the combination of
ground-level brute force and Machiavellian maneuver.
The documents reveal
that this Iranian effort is uppermost on the minds of the rulers of the Arab
states that Iran is targeting. They suggest that the stronger Arab states are
organizing political and intelligence warfare of their own to combat the Iranian
effort. They also strongly indicate the absence of a corresponding sense of
urgency among US administration officials.
Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak, in a meeting with Sen. John Kerry, says that “Iran’s sponsorship of
terrorism is well-known, but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a
His intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, in a meeting
with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, is more explicit regarding
Egyptian efforts to counter Iranian subversion.
Suleiman noted that Iran
is “very active” in Egypt and that it is granting $25 million per month to
Suleiman asserts that Iran has tried to transfer payments to the
Kassam Brigades in Gaza, which Egypt has prevented.
He also notes Egypt’s
apprehending of what he describes as a large “Hizbullah cell” on its soil (the
49-man cell apprehended by the Egyptian authorities in April 2009), and reports
Iranian efforts to recruit among Sinai Beduin.
Suleiman tells Mullen that
Egypt has begun a “confrontation with Hizbullah and Iran.” He mentions that his
service has begun to recruit agents in Syria and Iraq, and says that Egypt has
sent a clear message to Iran that if it continues to interfere in Egypt, Egypt
will interfere with Iran. Iran, Suleiman concludes, must “pay the price” for its
actions and not be allowed to interfere in regional affairs.
officials quoted sound no less concerned than the Egyptians, but their remarks
are notably less robust and more anxious.
In a meeting with White House
counterterrorism chief John Brennan, for example, King Abdullah describes a
conversation he had with with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on
the issue of Iran’s “interference in Arab affairs.” Abdullah challenges Mottaki
on Iranian meddling in Palestinian politics and support for Hamas.
are Muslims,” he quotes Mottaki as responding.
“No, Arabs,” countered
Abdullah, before adding, “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab
The exchange ends with Abdullah giving the Iranians a year to
improve matters, otherwise “it will be the end.”
In the discussion,
Brennan responds by noting that the US is reviewing its Iran policy, and
observing that the US and Saudi Arabia have a “lot of work to do in the Middle
East together.” He then seeks to change the subject.
On two subsequent
occasions, Abdullah tries unsuccessfully to return the focus to Iran. When the
issue of Iraq emerges, he notes that “some say the US invasion handed Iraq to
Iran on a silver platter,” before referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki as an “Iranian agent.”
The Brennan-Abdullah meeting is dated
March 22, 2009. In the meantime, the king’s ultimatum appears to have run its
allotted span, and Iranian activities have continued untroubled.
cables also show how Iranian regional ambitions have placed Teheran’s
fingerprints on myriad political processes across the Middle East. They detail
Iran’s extensive interference in Iraq, quote the Saudi king’s assertion of
Iranian aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, outline Iranian and Syrian
involvement with illegal arms transfers from North Korea and describe the
extensive involvement of Revolutionary Guards personnel in shipping weapons to
Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War (using the Iranian Red Crescent relief
organization as cover).
So the leaked cables provide added and deepened
color to an already existing picture of regional cold war. They do not require
the altering of any of the main contours of that picture.
attempting a hostile takeover of the local system.
Regional states are
concerned by this and are trying to organize in order to frustrate it. The US
administration, meanwhile, appears to be failing to acknowledge this overarching
reality in private conversation with its allies, just as it refuses to speak its
name in public statements.
For as long as this state of affairs
continues, the private conversations of US officials look set to be a
(henceforth probably better guarded) repetition of the dialogue of the deaf
available from the cables. The likely subject of the conversation, meanwhile,
will be the latest example of successful subversion of the regional order by
Iran and its allies.