Cables show Israel, Arabs share fear of Iran
NEW YORK — In late May 2009, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, used a visit from a congressional delegation to send a pointed message to the new US president.
In a secret cable sent back to Washington, the US ambassador to Israel, James Cunningham, reported that Barak had argued the world had 6 to 18 months “in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable.’’ After that, Barak said, “any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.’’
There was little surprising in Barak’s implicit threat that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. As a pressure tactic, Israeli officials have been setting such deadlines, and extending them, for years.
But six months later an Arab leader — the king of Bahrain, who provides the base for the US Fifth Fleet — told the Americans that the Iranian nuclear program “must be stopped,’’ according to another cable. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it,’’ he said.
His plea was shared by many of America’s Arab allies, including the powerful King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who according to another cable repeatedly implored Washington to “cut off the head of the snake’’ while there was still time.
These warnings are part of a trove of leaked diplomatic cables reaching back to the genesis of the Iranian nuclear standoff. The cables contain the unvarnished opinions of leaders from around the world about how to negotiate with, threaten, and perhaps force Iran’s leaders to renounce their atomic ambitions.
The cables also contain a fresh US intelligence assessment of Iran’s missile program. They reveal for the first time that the United States believes Iran has obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could let it strike at Western European capitals and Moscow and help it develop more formidable long-range ballistic missiles.
In day-by-day detail, the cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of news organizations, tell the disparate diplomatic back stories of two administrations pressed from all sides to confront Tehran. They show how President George W. Bush, hamstrung by the complexities of Iraq and suspicions that he might attack Iran, struggled to put together even modest sanctions.
They also offer new insights into how President Obama, determined to merge his promise of “engagement’’ with his vow to raise the pressure on the Iranians, assembled a coalition that agreed to impose an array of sanctions considerably harsher than any before attempted.
When Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed it had to make a bona-fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.
Feeding the administration’s urgency was the intelligence about Iran’s missile program. As it weighed the implications of those findings, the administration maneuvered to win Russian support for sanctions. It killed a Bush-era plan for a missile defense site in Poland — which Moscow’s leaders feared was directed at them, not Tehran — and replaced it with one floating closer to Iran’s coast.
There is also a US-inspired plan to get the Saudis to offer China a steady oil supply, to wean it from energy dependence on Iran.
The Saudis agreed, and insisted on ironclad commitments from Beijing to join in sanctions against Tehran.
The cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries — notably the Saudis — in a common cause. Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action — by someone else.
If they seemed obsessed with Iran, though, they also seemed deeply conflicted about how to deal with it: with diplomacy, covert action, or force.