The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have, among other things, fed the notion that America's partners in the Middle East would support a forceful, perhaps even military, response against the nuclear efforts of Iran. Senior Arab leaders are quoted as saying as much in news reports covering the leaked State Department cables. The document dump last week, however, should come with a serious warning: "Handle with care."
First, what Arab leaders say to U.S. officials and what they might do may not always track. True, Sunni Arab leaders are alarmed about growing Iranian regional influence and fear a nuclear-armed Iran—more because of the enhanced prestige and power such a capability would hand the Shiite state than because of fears that Iran would actually use such a weapon against them. Arab rulers in particular resent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attempts to reach over their heads to the Arab populace at large with anti-American and anti- Israel vitriol that resonates by underscoring their rulers' incompetence and double standards.
But views of Iran vary not only between leaders and their publics but also across the region. Leaders of states with sizable and even majority Shiite populations—such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—tend to take a harder line against Iran than Persian Gulf states such as Oman or Qatar, which maintain close economic and diplomatic relations with Iran. Given domestic pressures and intra-Arab rivalries, all Arab states hedge in their policies toward Iran, seeking to rein in Iranian influence but also being mindful of the permanence of Iranian power and the costs of antagonizing it. In short, there is no unified Arab front against Iran. U.S. policies based on such a premise are unlikely to succeed.
Second, many Arabs express deep antipathy for Iran, not only because of traditional Arab-Persian divides but because of actions taken by the Iranian state, such as attempts to claim the mantle of the Palestinian cause, expand its influence in the Levant and challenge the legitimacy of Arab rulers through active support for anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
But dislike of Iran does not suggest an affinity with the United States or Washington's policies. Arab leaders are still resentful of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its overturning of the regional balance of power in ways that have strengthened Iranian influence. Despite considerable U.S. arms sales and missile defense cooperation with allies in the region in recent years, American credibility is in decline, and popular views of the United States are overwhelmingly negative, most alarmingly in states that are key U.S. partners, such as Egypt and Jordan.
Dislike of Iran will not dispel such anti-American sentiments, particularly in the wake of any U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran (the United States would be implicated either way). Such action could even lead Arab leaders who may quietly applaud an attack on Iran to distance themselves from military and political cooperation with Washington. If Arab gulf interests were harmed in the aftermath of such an operation, such as by Iranian retaliatory attacks in the Strait of Hormuz, these states would probably blame the United States as much as Iran.
Finally, the notion that the Arabs and Israelis are now tacitly aligned because of shared concerns over Iran is equally misleading. Israeli analysts and officials often note that Arab states may be just as or even more worried about Iran than they are. But rarely if ever does a conversation in the region that begins with Iran end with Iran. The issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still viewed as a core challenge that makes more overt cooperation with Israel or alignment with U.S. policies difficult.
The shared concern over Iran does not translate into shared understandings about the significance of the Palestinian conflict. Though no Arab leader (or U.S. policymaker) is likely to believe that solving this conflict would miraculously resolve all other conflicts—and many regional leaders arguably benefit from its continued existence—its continuation and the daily images it produces on pan-Arab media affect the types of policies that these states can pursue.
For Arabs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still central to any other policy challenge they face, including Iran. In contrast, Israeli leaders increasingly view the Palestinian conflict as a subsidiary of the Iranian challenge; the view held by past Israeli leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin—that resolving the Palestinian conflict would boost Israel's ability to confront adversaries like Iran—is rarely expressed in Israeli strategic circles today. Instead, many Israeli leaders believe that that common concern over Iran will dissipate the regional focus on the Palestinian issue.
The cables open a window into America's Middle East diplomacy, but they should not lead us to draw the wrong conclusions.
Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 6, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.