Notes from Freeman on WikiLeaks, Arab Leaders and Iran

Earlier this week, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman offered some invaluable insights on WikiLeaks, which Jim Lobe and I wrote about in this IPS piece and I shared here.  I thought I’d take another chance to empty my notebook of more of Freeman’s observations. (And check out his new book.)

Freeman, who has extensive diplomatic experience in the Gulf region, including an appointment as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was nonplused by the contentious rhetoric of Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. In one of the cables released by WikiLeaks, Zayed called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “Hitler.” In the words of the U.S. note-taker, Zayed warned against appeasement with Iran.

Freeman’s reaction:

To my experience, if you say Ahamdinejad is “Hitler,” that means you think the person you’re talking with will like you to say that. So it’s ingratiating language.

Many neocons have made hay over the war cries of some regional Arab leaders, claiming these fears give more credence to Israeli warnings about Iran, now that they have been joined by their usually-diametrically-opposed neighbors. Freeman offered a different take, making a sharp observation about the import of Arab influence in Washington:

Does the fact that even an important Arab country, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, urges decisive action have a great deal of influence in Washington’s thinking? Probably not. There’s nothing else that they feel strongly about that weighs heavily on Washington’s views.

But that doesn’t mean the WikiLeaks release will be not have impact on the United States and it’s diplomatic agenda:

It will be a long time before anyone in the region will speak candidly to an American official. If you cannot speak in confidence with someone, you will not speak to them.

The released cables could serve Iran’s agenda in a some roundabout way:

Ahmadinejad will, as he did, dismiss these leaks. But Iran will take this as exposure of the hypocrisy of their neighbors’ leader. But there may also be a reaction form ordinary citizens/subjects in various places.

I don’t think this does any damage to Iran. In fact, it probably increases the prestige of Iran because it inflates the menace that Iran poses.

And bolster the agenda of those who seek war with Iran:

It’ll certainly be a boost for the Israeli effort to corral the U.S. into some sort of action against Iran.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning Freeman’s skepticism about what the cables actually reveal. Tony Karon at Time addressed this in his excellent piece called “Deception Par for the Course in Mideast Diplomacy,” Karon points to a WikiLeaked cable, where an American diplomat also expressed skepticism about Israeli rhetoric as well as the Israeli timeframe for the Iranian nuclear program:

COMMENT: It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States

Freeman concurs that duplicity runs rampant among Mideast diplomats, “worse than any place” he’s been:

The Middle East is a place that gave diplomacy a bad name in the beginning. There’s the Arab proverb “kiss the hand you cannot bite.” You’ve gotta take everything with a grain of salt in the Middle East, including the Israelis. Especially the Israelis.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.


One Comment

  1. Right. That’s why I keep telling you guys to look beyond the rhetoric. There is not going to be a direct military attack on Iran by anybody, including the Israelis. I’ll bet any of you twenty bucks (that’s high-rolling for me) that neither the U.S. nor Israel will use their military forces for an overt attack (i.e., bombing, shelling, missile strikes, or ground forces) on Iran between now and Dec. 31, 2012. A naval incident in the Gulf that does not lead to an attack on Iran proper doesn’t count.

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