Notes From an Undeclared Cold War

Gloria Center- 11/12/2010

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this week confirm that the key strategic process taking place in the Middle East is the push for regional dominance by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The documents show that the Iranian nuclear program is only the most worrisome element of a broader effort, as there is additional evidence of Iranian involvement and interference in political processes across the region.

The method depicted and discussed is familiar: Local Islamist proxies are located, organized and exploited (the creation of “mini-Hizbullahs” in Saudi King Abdullah’s memorable words used in one of the cables), and influence is accumulated through the combination of ground-level brute force and Machiavellian maneuver.

The documents reveal that this Iranian effort is uppermost on the minds of the rulers of the Arab states that Iran is targeting. They suggest that the stronger Arab states are organizing political and intelligence warfare of their own to combat the Iranian effort. They also strongly indicate the absence of a corresponding sense of urgency among US administration officials.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a meeting with Sen. John Kerry, says that “Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is well-known, but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation.”

His intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, in a meeting with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, is more explicit regarding Egyptian efforts to counter Iranian subversion.

Suleiman noted that Iran is “very active” in Egypt and that it is granting $25 million per month to Hamas.

Suleiman asserts that Iran has tried to transfer payments to the Kassam Brigades in Gaza, which Egypt has prevented.

He also notes Egypt’s apprehending of what he describes as a large “Hizbullah cell” on its soil (the 49-man cell apprehended by the Egyptian authorities in April 2009), and reports Iranian efforts to recruit among Sinai Beduin.

Suleiman tells Mullen that Egypt has begun a “confrontation with Hizbullah and Iran.” He mentions that his service has begun to recruit agents in Syria and Iraq, and says that Egypt has sent a clear message to Iran that if it continues to interfere in Egypt, Egypt will interfere with Iran. Iran, Suleiman concludes, must “pay the price” for its actions and not be allowed to interfere in regional affairs.

Saudi officials quoted sound no less concerned than the Egyptians, but their remarks are notably less robust and more anxious.

In a meeting with White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, for example, King Abdullah describes a conversation he had with with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on the issue of Iran’s “interference in Arab affairs.” Abdullah challenges Mottaki on Iranian meddling in Palestinian politics and support for Hamas.

“These are Muslims,” he quotes Mottaki as responding.

“No, Arabs,” countered Abdullah, before adding, “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters.”

The exchange ends with Abdullah giving the Iranians a year to improve matters, otherwise “it will be the end.”

In the discussion, Brennan responds by noting that the US is reviewing its Iran policy, and observing that the US and Saudi Arabia have a “lot of work to do in the Middle East together.” He then seeks to change the subject.

On two subsequent occasions, Abdullah tries unsuccessfully to return the focus to Iran. When the issue of Iraq emerges, he notes that “some say the US invasion handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter,” before referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an “Iranian agent.”

The Brennan-Abdullah meeting is dated March 22, 2009. In the meantime, the king’s ultimatum appears to have run its allotted span, and Iranian activities have continued untroubled.

The cables also show how Iranian regional ambitions have placed Teheran’s fingerprints on myriad political processes across the Middle East. They detail Iran’s extensive interference in Iraq, quote the Saudi king’s assertion of Iranian aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, outline Iranian and Syrian involvement with illegal arms transfers from North Korea and describe the extensive involvement of Revolutionary Guards personnel in shipping weapons to Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War (using the Iranian Red Crescent relief organization as cover).

So the leaked cables provide added and deepened color to an already existing picture of regional cold war. They do not require the altering of any of the main contours of that picture.

Iran is attempting a hostile takeover of the local system.

Regional states are concerned by this and are trying to organize in order to frustrate it. The US administration, meanwhile, appears to be failing to acknowledge this overarching reality in private conversation with its allies, just as it refuses to speak its name in public statements.

For as long as this state of affairs continues, the private conversations of US officials look set to be a (henceforth probably better guarded) repetition of the dialogue of the deaf available from the cables. The likely subject of the conversation, meanwhile, will be the latest example of successful subversion of the regional order by Iran and its allies.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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