Classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggest that Iran goes into next week's nuclear talks with few remaining allies, increasingly isolated not only from the United States and Europe but also from most of its Muslim neighbors in the Middle East.
The talks, which are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, would be the first since negotiations fell apart in August over a U.N. proposal to ship Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad for conversion to fuel that could be used in Tehran's medical programs.
The cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that Middle East leaders and diplomats have told U.S. officials that Iran has little support in the region, conceivably strengthening the hands of U.S. and European negotiators at next week's discussions.
That is by no means a given: The cables released by WikiLeaks and those cited by its partner news organizations — the authenticity of which the United States refuses to confirm — are only a small fraction of those the site obtained and may not reflect the complete picture available in the full collection. And while many of them are classified, none are labeled "top secret," meaning they likely don't include the most sensitive information that informs U.S. foreign policy.
But some consistent themes emerge from what's available: Iran has few friends in the Mideast, even among nations that speak more accommodatingly in public for political reasons; the Iranian leadership is not united behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and the United States and its European allies must lean heavily on the government of Turkey for its limited insight into the affairs of Tehran, despite what they see as the erratic unreliability of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Some Middle Eastern states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long opposed the militant Islamist regime in Tehran and warned that its nuclear programs pose a grave threat. That antipathy is duly reflected in the WikiLeaks documents, which include the widely reported insistence by Saudi King Abdullah that Washington must "cut off the head of the snake."
But the cables also reflect widespread fear among many other countries in the region, concern that runs deeper than has previously been known because their leaders are "hesitant to use harsh language in public statements," as the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, reported in a Jan. 26, 2010, cable classified "secret."
Their reasons vary. Cables indicate that some countries' leaders don't want to antagonize Tehran because of their dependence on Iran for its oil or its trade routes to Central Asia, while others fear a backlash from political opponents and everyday citizens sympathetic to the conservative Shia Islam espoused by Iran.
Ahmadinejad said to be spoiling for a fight with U.S.
Others, like the leaders of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, see Ahmadinejad as dangerously unstable.
In February of this year, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani briefed Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on his recent discussions with Ahmadinejad, warning that "Iran wants nuclear weapons" and that he "would not be surprised to see Iran test one to demonstrate to the world its achievement," the U.S. Embassy in Doha reported in a cable classified "confidential."
Al Thani said Ahmadinejad was spoiling for a fight with the United States, which would be "good politics, because it would allow him to take out his opposition using the war as a pretext."
"Qatar's PM said Ahmadinejad had told him, 'We beat the Americans in Iraq; the final battle will be in Iran,'" the embassy reported.
Two months earlier, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, told U.S. energy officials there to discuss oil matters that "Iran was already acting like a nuclear power," the U.S. Embassy stated in a Dec. 9, 2009, cable classified "secret/noforn" (for no foreign).
"More dangerously, Iran is establishing 'emirates' across the Muslim world, including South Lebanon and Gaza, sleeper 'emirates' in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Eastern Province of Saudi
Arabia, the mother of all 'emirates' in Southern Iraq, and now Saada in Yemen," the embassy quoted the prince, whom it shorthanded as "MbZ," as saying.
In what may have been a prescient remark in light of more recent attempted terrorist attacks on U.S. planes that U.S. officials have blamed on Yemen, "MbZ suggested that the U.S. is misreading the situation in Yemen and failing to recognize strong evidence of Iranian support," the embassy reported.
Other documents suggest that the United States and its allies could use divisions in Tehran to maneuver Ahmadinejad into agreeing to limit his nuclear ambitions. Middle East sources quoted in the cables said that regardless of what it may say in public, Iran's religious leadership pays attention to opinion in the rest of the Arab world and may be increasingly disenchanted with Ahmadinejad, partly because of international condemnation of the June 2009 elections that kept him in power.
Disputed election seen to present opportunities
Shortly after the vote, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, that the disputed election and the protests that followed it had revealed "definite cracks in the Iranian system" that "should be exploited," the U.S. Embassy reported in a July 20, 2009, cable classified "confidential."
Eight months later, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan — Iran's northern neighbor — was still smoldering over "outrageous" corruption in the election, the U.S. Embassy in Baku reported in a "confidential" cable recapping Aliyev's meeting with Undersecretary of State William J. Burns.
"He viewed the situation as very tense within Iran and believed it could erupt at any time," the cable said.
The assessments mirror those of numerous Arab commentators and scholars surveyed after the Iranian campaign by diplomats monitoring Iran from Dubai. In an Aug. 3, 2009, cable classified "secret/noforn," the diplomats reported that "for the very first time," Arab commentators had been emboldened by the election protests to speak out against Ahmadinejad, who they said had "lost standing among some moderate Arabs, who have come to view Ahmadinejad's administration as oppressive, unpopular and undemocratic."
The backlash against the elections "poked a hole in the veneer of the Islamic Republic's internal political system and explored its underpinnings more closely, often challenging the system's very legitimacy," the cable said.
The August 2009 memo also highlights a key theme in the WikiLeaks cables. By relying on commentators and academics, it highlights the difficulty of getting reliable information from sources inside the Iranian.
It's a roadblock acknowledged in other memos by officials as high up as Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, who is quoted in a Feb. 12, 2010, cable classified "secret/noforn" as telling French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that "our understanding of the Iranian leadership (is) opaque."
Nowhere is this dim, flickering spotlight better illustrated than in cables that try to pinpoint the health of Ahmadinejad's patron, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
In Aug. 28, 2009, the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, sent a "confidential" cable to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's office, flatly declaring — based on the word of a source whose identity has been deleted — that "Khamenei has cancer" — specifically, leukemia — and "is likely to die within a matter of months."
Almost three years earlier, in January 2007, the U.S. consulate in Dubai quoted the emirate's Cabinet Minister Mohammed Gergawi as saying that, no, Khamenei was believed to have prostate cancer.
As of this writing, Khamenei is still alive, whether ailing or not.
Turkey is key source of intelligence, but is it trustworthy?
The cables also make it clear how much the United States leans on Turkey for information. Turkey's influence remains significant, so much so that as late as October, the European Union was considering convening next week's nuclear negotiations in Istanbul, an option it reportedly dropped so it could control the agenda closer to home in Geneva.
The cables show that Turkey, which is seeking membership in the European Union, is eager to sell itself to the West as a bridge to Tehran, but Washington is wary because of Erdogan's frequent friendly public words about Iran. Into that breach has stepped Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
In several cables from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Davutoglu is quoted as defending Turkey against U.S. concerns about Erdogan's rhetoric and reassuring the Americans that it is Washington's friend.
In a Nov. 3, 2009, "confidential" policy cable titled "Working Erdogan Back Into the Fold on Iran," U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffery writes that it's imperative that U.S. officials make it clear that Erdogan must curb his "damaging defense of Iran's nuclear activities."
Just two weeks later, in a meeting with Philip H. Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, Davutoglu again tried to mend fences. In a "secret" cable , the embassy reported that Davutoglu argued that "public messages of friendship" cultivate the "full trust" of Iranian leaders, allowing Turkey to "speak bluntly and critically to the Iranians."
A Jan. 26, 2010, "secret" background cable advancing a visit by Gates suggests that Turkey might be willing to host what's described as a "key radar system" — but only if it can be confident of "NATO political cover to lessen the high cost — both in terms of domestic politics and in relations with Iran — that Erdogan's government believes it will have to pay should they agree."
In several documents, Davutoglu and other Turkish officials working below the problematic prime minister deliver the same message, as encapsulated in a Dec. 4, 2009, "confidential" situation cable from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. That cable says those officials argue that regardless of what Erdogan may say in public, Turkey pursues closer relations with Iran not out of ideological sympathy but to advance "regional stability and conflict avoidance, recognition of Turkey as an indispensable East-West bridge, strengthening a long-term energy and commercial relationship, and hope that Turkey's approach will moderate Iranian regime behavior."
The cable goes on to note, however, that "Turkey's influence over Iranian decision-making is limited" and suggests the real reason Turkey cultivates friendly relations is "that its own growing energy needs compel it to look to all available sources, including Iran."
The cable also indicates that Turkey may be overselling its insights into Tehran's behavior.
The problem, it says, is that "Turkey's belief that it understands Iranian political developments better than most Western countries is an assumption strongly challenged by our Iranian contacts." And in that, it is "just as uncertain as the (U.S. government) and other Western countries as to what exactly is happening behind the regime's closed doors."