What will the Arab public think?

WikiLeaks ‘Embassy Files’ reveal gulf between Arab leaders and their constituencies.

Andoni argues that Arab leaders fear Iran as a potential influence over their constituencies [GALLO/GETTY]

Most Arab leaders want the US to tackle Iran, even to wage a war against the country, but evidently do not say so publicly for fear of Arab public opinion and reaction.

Confidential cables by American diplomats in the region, revealed by WikiLeaks, expose weak and fearful Arab leaders who are dependent on US protection against real and imagined fears over Iran’s potential possession of nuclear arms and its influence in the Arab world.

Although the hostility of Arab leaders towards Iran is not a secret, the documents published by a number of Western newspapers show that some Arab governments appear more concerned with Iran than Israel; for while Israel is seen as an enemy that occupies Arab land and may cause instability in the region, Iran is feared as a country that could mobilise Arab public support against their leaders.

In their conversations with American officials, Arab leaders refer to Iran as “a snake”, “evil” and “an octopus whose tentacles need to be severed” – presumably they are far more cautious in their labelling of Israel when talking to US diplomats.

Establishing Iranian ’emirates’

The fear that Iran could stir internal dissent and even insurgencies centres on two points; firstly its role in countering Israel, mainly through its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and secondly, its influence on Shia communities in some Gulf states.

In the disclosed documents several Arab leaders sound unsure and lacking in self-confidence as they express concern that US engagement with Iran will fail to contain “the Iranian threat” and urge the US to stop Iran “at any cost”. What is most striking is that some Arab officials appear to believe that the cost of war against Iran, in terms of regional instability, is less than the cost they may pay if Iran is “not stopped”.

“Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter,” a cable quoted Zaid Al Rifai, the head of the Jordanian senate and father of the current Jordanian prime minister, as saying. While Rifai, the brief continues, judged that a military strike would have a “catastrophic impact on the region,” he nonetheless thought that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would pay enough dividends to make that risk worthwhile.

While Arab leaders appear far more concerned about a nuclear Iran than a nuclear Israel, it is difficult to draw any comparisons as there is a marked absence of any mention of Arab leaders’ views on Israel in the documents published so far. In fact, this has raised some speculation in the Arab world that the leaks may be a deliberate attempt to pressure Arab leaders to join an alliance with Israel against Iran. And while the documents reveal Arab leaders who are more obsessed with Iran than Israel, none of them indicate that there has been any official acceptance of the formation of an anti-Iranian pact with Israel.

Nevertheless, and even allowing for reservations about the nature of the leaks, the picture that emerges is one of feeble Arab leaders at the mercy of the US and pleading for Uncle Sam’s protection.

The documents reveal that Gulf leaders in particular are afraid that Iran will use its influence over their Shia constituencies and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah to establish strongholds inside Arab countries. One UAE leader is quoted as saying that “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]”.

They do not appear to be as afraid about the possibility of Iran using nuclear weapons – once it develops them – as they are about how nuclear capability has already emboldened, and will continue to embolden, the Islamic Republic to act as “a superpower in the region”.

But, critically, what the documents do not reveal is the pressure the US exerts on Arab governments to take steps against Iran. And by excluding this information, the documents offer a somewhat misleading portrayal of the US as favouring ‘engagement’, while the Arabs urge the use of force.

The regional superpower

The truth may be more complex than the published documents suggest, since Arab leaders are vulnerable to US pressure. However, what is evident, as most clearly articulated by Jordanian officials, is that many of the pro-Western Arab governments fear an Iranian-American understanding at their expense. At the root of this sentiment is concern that the US will come to accept Iran as the main regional power and eventually accept Iranian-supported upheaval within Arab states.

Gulf states like Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia fear that their Shia constituencies will, with Iranian support, turn against their governments, while Jordan and Egypt fear that Iran will back the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood or at least encourage the radicalisation of the Arab public – particularly if no resolution to the Palestinian crisis is forthcoming.

The documents do not present a complete picture, but they do reveal the gap between Arab leaders and their constituencies.

Iran’s much feared influence is to a large extent the result of Israel’s continued occupation of Arab land and the lack of progress in Arab-Israeli negotiations. Iranian support for Hamas and, more so, Hezbollah – the only movement that has forced an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land – casts Arab governments in a negative light by exposing their impotence vis-à-vis Israel.

The WikiLeaks revelations will further erode the image of Arab leaders in Arab public opinion and make it more difficult for them to publicly advocate a war against Iran. Even if some of the fears expressed by Arab leaders are shared by segments of the Arab people, any official Arab attempt, beyond the closed doors of meetings with US officials, to make Iran, rather than Israel, the enemy will backfire.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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