Peter Shelton


Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on December 2, 2010

Some of the unguarded statements in the latest round of WikiLeaks documents have embarrassed diplomats and caused the U.S. government to wail like a child whose secret hiding place has been found out. Kill the messenger, they shout. Never mind that the message may, in fact, broaden understanding and lead, eventually, to a more realistic foreign policy.

The sensational quotes from leaked diplomatic cables included one from the Saudi king who urged a U.S. military strike against Iran’s growing nuclear capability with the colorful phrase, “Cut off the head of the snake.”

Then there was Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi who said plainly, “Ahmedinejad is Hitler.”

These Arab leaders live in real fear, hatred even, of their neighbor across the Persian Gulf. By contrast, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which gets all the ink and, in theory at least, unites the Arab world against a Zionist homeland, is but 100 years young. This Arab-Persian thing goes back thousands of years.

Implicit in these classified cables was the idea that if Israel were to act militarily against Iran, at least some in the Arab world wouldn’t object. In their more candid moments, anyway. Before the U.N. General Assembly, or the world press, probably not so much. But this is the hypocrisy WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange despises and wants to expose.

I think it’s good to get this stuff out in the open, possible dangers to U.S. informants notwithstanding. We need to appreciate the bigger picture.

Iranians are not Arabs. They are Muslim, mostly, but are not Arabic in either language or ethnicity. Apart from oil reserves, and a chip on its shoulder regarding the West, Iran has little in common with its Sunni Muslim neighbors. (Iran is 90 percent Shi’a.)

If Iran’s immediate neighbors feel threatened, Iran has existential fears of its own. It is surrounded by real enemies. The U.S. has nuclear-armed ships cruising the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. We have bases just across the border on all sides: in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Afghanistan. Largely-Sunni Turkey is a NATO stalwart trying hard to be admitted to the European Union. Only Russia on the north has been an (inconsistent) ally. Nuclear-armed Israel is a constant threat to attack.

Why wouldn’t they want to develop a nuclear deterrent of their own? Yes, they did sign on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But so did North Korea. The Koreans signed, then violated the treaty and withdrew from it, and seem now to be enjoying their time as a micro-bully.

What do the nationalist paranoiacs in Iran see when they look at the nuclear states? The U.S., Russia, the U.K., France and China all signed the NPT after they had their nukes. And now – it couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? – those five own all of the permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council.

North Korea defied the NPT and what has it got them? They are international pariahs, sure, but every time they sneeze their neighbors quake and the big powers equivocate. Nukes gave a tiny, dysfunctional kingdom the power to play on the big stage.

One hundred eight-nine countries have signed on to the NPT. Not including India, Pakistan and Israel. India decided it needed to join the club and counter historic rival China, so it developed its bomb, codenamed “Smiling Buddha,” unilaterally in 1974. Pakistan freaked out and did the same in 1998. Neither country has been condemned. In fact, membership has gained them a gravitas, based less on respect perhaps than on a fear of the weapons being used (or sold), but a gravitas nonetheless. They must be treated formally and with kid gloves.

Israel’s official policy is that its nuclear capabilities are officially opaque. But everybody knows they have nukes and the systems to deliver them.

From Tehran’s point of view there is no downside to developing a similarly horrible deterrent. There is only upside. Even as they know if they were to use it they would be wiped off the map in retaliation.

It’s all a chess game of survival amid ancient antagonisms and political tides.

Julian Assange says: Secrets = bad. Putting all your cards on the table = good.

The documents are out for all to see. Will they help the fundamentalists retrench on both sides of the Gulf? Or will they hasten their ouster? Will candid words lead to honest dealing? Is it naïve to hope so?

One thing seems clear. Traditional two-faced diplomacy has taken a hit. Accepted truth, or understanding, or whatever you want to call it, has been expanded.


One Response

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  1. Bob Berwyn said, on December 4, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Right on target Peter. Secrecy is the tool that enables manipulation. Also, with the information out there, it’s harder for anyone, in any country, to plead ignorance. It makes all of us all the more responsible for what our governments do in our name.

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