Leaks Reveal Arab World's Concerns About Iran

Among the revelations in the latest WikiLeaks release is concern among the Arab world about Iran. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic about these findings.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There are quotations about Iran in these WikiLeaks cables that can make a reporter salivate. Middle Eastern monarchs and ministers speak of Iran as an octopus or a snake. A Mid-Easterner says of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he is Hitler, and it's not an Israeli talking. It's the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Reporters can only wish to hear such frank talk on the record from such powerful sources. But does the vivid language add any substance to our understanding of Iran as her neighbors see and fear her?

Well, we've invited a journalist who's written extensively about Iran's nuclear program, Israel and the U.S. Jeffrey Goldberg is national correspondent for The Atlantic. He wrote a lengthy article, "Point of No Return," about this earlier this year. We talked about it here. Welcome back again.

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Have you seen anything in the WikiLeaks cables that surprise you or that change your view of this?

Mr. GOLDBERG: The ferocity of these quotations, the ferocity and insistence on the part of these Arab leaders, it's quite something to behold. You know, the Israelis have been, obviously, very blunt in private and in public about the Iranian threat. If anything, these quotations are more ferocious than what you hear out of the Israelis. Ahmadinejad is Hitler coming from an Arab leader is pretty extraordinary.

SIEGEL: The king of Saudi Arabia, a very consequential figure in the region, saying we should cut the head of the snake off here.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. No. This is a very interesting moment because the issue has been framed by many people as a kind of a binary: Israel and Iran. One wants nuclear weapons; one wants to prevent the other one from getting nuclear weapons. But now we see really, fully, the masks are off.

The Arab world, and really most moderate Arab regimes, live in the same sort of existential fear that Israel does of this Iranian program. And it reminds us that the Jewish-Arab - the Jewish-Arab dispute has been going on for 100 years, but the Shiite-Sunni split and the Persian-Arab split, they've been going on for 1,000.

I mean, this is a deep, deep, deep issue that's just now really surfaced because of these leaks.

SIEGEL: There's an irony here, which is the State Department is furious that their confidential cable, that is cables based on confidential conversations, have been made public. And yet we read in one of the cables the anxiety at State that Arab leaders won't say publicly what it is that they're saying privately about Iran.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right, well, that's not a new aspect of life in the Middle East. Everything is a double game, as you know. And this is the problem, and American policymakers know that this is a problem. The Arab leaders have been lobbying pretty insistently for the last couple years, or even before a couple of years, in the Bush administration, too, for America to take some sort of dramatic action against Iran.

The Americans, and certainly the Israelis, see that and say, well, that's great, but when it comes time to vote to condemn this action in the U.N., where are you going to be?

So the Arab countries would like America, or even Israel at this point, to deal with their mess. But there's no guarantee that the Arab states would do anything to help America.

SIEGEL: There's another dimension to U.S.-Iranian tensions that's a subject of these cables, and it's President Obama's policy of offering engagement with Iran when he first became president but in fact waging a diplomatic campaign for sanctions and trying to even assure China that applying sanctions against Iran wouldn't cost it access to Middle Eastern oil.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. No, it's fascinating. What the Arab states are worried about, and I think what the Israeli government is worried about, too, is this: They officially endorse the Obama plan of engagement plus sanctions, carrots and sticks, however you want to frame it. But they worry because they don't know what happens if that doesn't work. And the Obama administration has not told any of these Arab leaders, and they haven't suggested, publicly at least to Israel, what will happen if it fails and Iran reaches the nuclear threshold.

What the Arabs want to hear, and they've been desperate to hear this for a couple of years, is: If this doesn't work, we will stop them by force. And that is what creates so much anxiety among these Arab regimes.

SIEGEL: You remarked in your blog about this today, that Secretary of Defense Gates is quoted as saying: Look, even if the Israelis do strike at the Iranian facilities, it would only set them back by a couple years.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes. You know, it's interesting. Here's one area of divergence between Washington and Jerusalem. Secretary Gates thinks that's not enough time to warrant an attack. The Israelis say every year that you buy us is a year closer to the point where the Iranian people might overthrow this mad regime.

Gates has also said that he worries that an attack will solidify or unify the Iranian people behind the regime. I don't know that that's true. I don't know if it's not true. I mean, we're dealing with such a set of unknowns here, it's mindboggling.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, thank you very much.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

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