Tehran’s Hubris May Now Know No Bounds

In the coverage of the revelations contained within the thousands of leaked U.S. governments cables, official American reports of Arab animosity and trepidation toward Iran have gained much attention. Lost amid the brouhaha is one simple, unfortunate reality: the prospects of making meaningful progress on constraining the Iranian nuclear programme have just got tougher.

In fact, despite all their juicy details, the Wikileaks revelations on Iran offer no epiphanies. In the accounts of U.S. diplomats, Arab leaders revile Iran, fear its nuclear programme, resent its creeping influence across the region, and above all appeal to Washington for more aggressive steps against Tehran. But the hawkishness of Arab leaders on Iran when behind closed doors has long been the region’s worst kept secret. After all, the leading regional states boast longstanding alliances with Washington and spend billions of dollars on U.S. military equipment. This suggests a lack of stealth in the perceptions of Arab states toward Iran.

The real problem that the Wikileaks document dump poses is the repercussions for diplomacy toward Iran and, in particular, the upcoming talks over Iran’s nuclear programme. The public airing of private sabre-rattling will force Arab states to recalibrate both their public approach and private actions on Iran in order to maintain the uneasy equilibrium that is the hallmark of their strategic stance.

The discontinuity between the public and private rhetoric of Arab leaders reflects their security dilemmas. While Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states rely on their alliance with Washington, at the helm of historically weak states flanked by more powerful neighbours, they instinctively hedge their bets. For most of the past half-century, they have sought to court, accommodate, or at least circumvent direct provocations with Tehran.

Iran’s neighbours fear the potential reprisals from any confrontation between Tehran and the United States or Israel. Iran has a long reach. Beyond their fears of Iranian reprisals, the leaked cables highlight the important economic considerations that frame Arab states’ caution to Tehran.

Their delicate balancing act is further complicated by domestic vulnerabilities. Though Arab publics have limited affection for their Persian neighbour, the after-effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generated deep-seated aversion to any prospect of U.S. action in the region.

So, Arab states will revert to the other dimension of their own dual-track approach to Iran, conciliation, in order to avoid a breach with their own publics, who largely oppose another U.S. war in the region, as well as any increase in tensions with Tehran. This move will be subtle but contrived to send a more tractable message to Tehran – renewed complaisance on Iranian financial maneuvers to skirt multilateral sanctions, public demonstrations of their autonomy from Washington, the despatch of private envoys to reassure Iran’s twitchy leadership. The United States will face a less compliant context for its efforts to drum up Gulf support on sanctions.

The setbacks for American diplomacy on Iran thanks to Wikileaks don’t end in the Gulf. The documents will be read carefully by the Iranian leadership, just as the files from the seized U.S. embassy were a generation ago. The official American documents may offer few bombshells, but it provides a bonanza on the eve of the talks expected to take place next week in Geneva. Iranian leaders have been given a copy of their opponents’ playbook on the eve of the big game, inevitably diluting the much vaunted ‘leverage’ against Tehran the Obama administration has spent two painstaking years assembling.

The leaks will exacerbate two countervailing but equally problematic tendencies among Iran’s leaders – their paranoia and overconfidence. The cables reveal in extravagant detail the extent of Iran’s isolation and the depth of the international opposition it faces but the chance to revel in the calculations of U.S. diplomats no doubt will fuel the leaders’ dangerous hubris. At a time of renewed regional reticence towards Tehran this makes it almost inevitable that the long-awaited nuclear negotiations will end in acrimony.