The Obama administration is preparing for a new round of talks with Iran over its suspected nuclear program — possibly presenting the first real test of how the WikiLeaks document dump earlier this week could affect U.S. diplomacy. Many of the embassy cables show Arab states pushing the U.S. to take a much harder line with Iran. And some analysts say the documents give the impression that U.S. sanctions matter more than striking a deal with Tehran.
Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council, worked on Iran issues at the State Department until June, so nothing in the leaked cables came as news to him. But, he says, the documents do show that high-level Obama administration officials didn't believe diplomacy could succeed in scaling back Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"Now I understand the trepidation after 31 years of institutionalized enmity," he says. "But we have to ask ourselves: Can U.S. policymakers give maximum efforts to make diplomacy succeed if they admittedly never believed that their efforts could work?" He adds a further question: "What are the chances that Iran will now take diplomacy seriously since it knows that the U.S. never really did?"
The Obama administration came into office with an outstretched hand to Iran, but it also kept up the carrot-and-stick approach that the Bush administration put in place. The diplomatic cables reveal a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the "stick" side — building up tougher sanctions. Marashi calls this a "Now what?" moment for U.S. policymakers.
"The Obama administration has to choose between continuing its existing policy that has been unevenly applied because the carrots for Iran aren't clear," or, he says, "it can recalibrate its current policy to seriously consider the political, economic, security and nuclear incentives sought by Iran that any diplomatic solution will inevitably have to address."
The United States is going into talks next week in Geneva with a serious approach. In recent remarks to the U.S. Institute of Peace, though, one of the president's top advisers on Iran, Dennis Ross, talked only in general terms about what might be on offer from the U.S. and its partners, Russia, China, the European Union, the U.K., Germany and France.
"Iran has a chance now to benefit tremendously when it comes to technology, to science, to economics, financial areas, politically, in all these ways Iran can benefit," Ross said. "And I hope it takes the chance to do so, because if not, it will be squeezed further."
Ross brushed aside the WikiLeaks disclosures, saying U.S. partners wouldn't have gone along with tough sanctions had they not been convinced that the U.S. was sincere in its outreach to Iran.
"The president has believed that it was important to pursue the diplomacy not as some kind of charade, but to pursue it to see if we could change Iran's behavior," Ross says. "Changing Iran's behavior is an important objective. Doing it through diplomacy, through good-faith diplomacy, has permitted us to mobilize the international community the way that we had. If we were seen as not being for real, we would not have been able to do that."
Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official now with the Brookings Institution, echoed that view. She says it would be disingenuous to read the diplomatic cables and come away with the impression that the engagement policy was a ploy. She also doesn't think the fact that so many Arab leaders have been outed for calling for tougher U.S. actions against Iran will make much of a difference.
"It's great fodder for gossips, for historians," Maloney says. "But ... it really comes as no surprise. These are countries that are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on their defensive and other military capabilities. They have very strong and very close relationships with the United States, and so I think that the fact that they have been pushing the U.S. for more aggressive action only points to the extent to which the Gulf states, in particular, constantly look to Washington to solve their security dilemma."
There could still be an upside to the leaks, as U.S. officials and analysts say the documents show how isolated Iran is as it enters the talks. The documents show concern among Arab states and Israel over the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
Ellen Laipson, president of the nonpartisan Stimson Center, who has worked on Iran and other Middle East issues at the National Security Council, says the leaked cables could be a wake-up call to Iran that it is actually drawing the U.S. closer to the countries in the region, while it wants the opposite.
"They might have to come to terms with the fact their behavior might be counterproductive," she says.
There are little expectations of great progress at the talks, beyond hopes that the summit will end with promises to at least meet again. Laipson says a good indicator of how seriously Iran is taking the talks is who will be there representing it, and whether the negotiators will have any real authority.
"This will be long and not transparent for the rest of the world," Laipson said. "The world will not be able to take the pulse of the talks minute to minute" — at least, not unless those cables are eventually leaked, too.