WikiLeaks, Iran, and the US’s Arab Allies: What the Corporate Media Are Not Saying

The corporate media are reliable and consistent.  They consistently focus on the sensational, and they reliably take the position of the US government.  So, it should come as no surprise that the recent release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks is being covered with much sound and fury, signifying little.

On the sensational and gossip-mongering front we have Gaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse, Angela Merkel’s “manly” leadership skills, Putin’s cozy relationship with Berlusconi, sex crimes charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, etc.  On the mundane lapdog front we have repeated stories touting the administration’s line about “national security” and the rationale for why the cables had to be kept hidden from public view, US efforts to bring legal charges against WikiLeaks, questions of whether Hillary Clinton should resign, the internet and its regulation, etc.

Sorely lacking in all the attention given to the WikiLeaks cables is an analysis of the functioning of empire.  While the cables may not reveal anything radically new, particularly to an astute left-liberal audience, it does offer a concrete snapshot of the workings of US policy.  And if nothing else it provides proof positive that governments lie.  The US lies to its people, and its allies lie to theirs.

For instance, the US has been at war with the people of Yemen for the last year, sporadically dropping bombs anywhere it likes.  An Amnesty international investigation found that an air strike in December, 2009 killed dozens of local residents, leading them to state that “those responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice.”

But the US will definitely not be brought to justice.  And certainly not with loyal allies like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are more than willing to lie.  In a conversation with General David Petraeus, Saleh, trying to save face domestically for the US airstrikes, said: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”  Petraeus in exchange guaranteed that US foreign aid to Yemen would more than double in 2010.

This is diplomacy, US style.  When Italian mobsters engage in such activity it is considered illegal, yet empires have an uncanny way of getting around such irksome impediments like international law and human rights.

Iran in the Crosshairs

Then there are the cables on Iran which show that not only is Iran in the crosshairs of the US and Israel, but that the US’s Arab allies in the region appear to be falling over themselves to assist the US in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Here you get to see how the Mafia Don relates to subordinates.

These subordinates, i.e. the US’s allies in the Middle East, referred to routinely by the corporate media as “moderates,” are far from being moderate in any real sense of the term.  For instance, the Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and most importantly Saudi Arabia), which house the majority of the oil in the region, are monarchies headed by leaders who are corrupt and unaccountable to their people.  Yet, the US prefers to ally with such “moderate” (read: pro-US) governments rather than Iran, which at least holds elections, albeit of a limited kind.

It should come as no surprise that these Gulf autocrats, as well as the US’s allies in other Arab nations such as Egypt and Jordan, would assist the US in advancing its imperial ambitions in the Middle East.  In so doing, they are simply advancing their own interests.

Yet, the cables reveal a level of animosity towards Iran that is quite remarkable especially since the comments made behind closed doors by several Arab allies stand in stark contrast to public statements made for domestic and regional consumption.  In a similar Orwellian move, Israel, which is routinely attacked (verbally of course) by these same leaders, is a behind-the-scenes ally, the cables reveal.  Black is white, night is day.

For instance, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates urged US General Abizaid to take action against Iran “this year or next.”  In another cable, bin Zayed, echoing Israeli language, stated that Iran should be not be appeased since “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.”

Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa, another close US ally, is quoted in one cable as calling “forcefully for taking action to terminate [Iran’s] nuclear program, by whatever means necessary.”  Bahrain hosts the US’s Fifth Fleet, the naval command responsible for the Persian Gulf.

Other cables show that Qatar is willing to let the US use an airbase in that country to bomb Iran.  This would not be the first time the US has used this particular airbase, having previously mounted air attacks from here on Iraq.  Qatar is willing to foot the lion share of the bill to maintain this airbase for US war games in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, one cable shows, made repeated entreaties to the US to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake.”  Saudi Arabia, at the biding of the US, also met with Chinese representatives to seek their consent for US-sponsored sanctions on Iran and agreed to supply China with oil as a way to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil.  Saudi Arabia was then permitted to buy $60 billion in military hardware, following faithfully the script of a seven-decade-old relationship between the two countries based on “oil for security.”

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak’s statements drip with contempt for Iran.  In a meeting with Sen. John Kerry, a memo states that Mubarak exclaimed that the Iranians “are big, fat liars and justify their lies because they believe it is for a higher purpose.”

He went on to add, however, that no Arab state could publicly assist the U.S. in a military attack on Iran.  He stated that Iran’s backing of terrorism is “well-known but I cannot say it publicly.  It would create a dangerous situation.”  Yet, in private Egypt has recruited Iraqi and Syrian agents to counter Iranian intelligence operations.

All this reads like a bad soap opera with feuding families pretending to make nice while plotting all along to stab each other in the back.  And at the head of this murky cesspool of deception is none other than the US grande dame.

But nations are not families, and so what explains the aforementioned Arab nations’ hostility towards Iran?

Explanations: History vs. Islamophobia

If one is seeking an explanation of the conflict between Iran and the US’s Arab allies, one is unlikely to find it the corporate media.  Because rather than reveal the historical economic and political interests that bring the US, Israel, and various Arab states together, the media fall back on age-old clichés.

For instance, in an otherwise useful front page article in the New York Times on Arab and Israeli leaders’ responses to a nuclear Iran, the authors go on to explain the roots of the conflict between the Arab world and Iran as follows: “To some extent, this Arab obsession with Iran was rooted in the uneasy sectarian division of the Muslim world, between the Shiites who rule Iran, and the Sunnis, who dominate most of the region.”

Even the Guardian newspaper, which has done a better job than the Times of analyzing the WikiLeaks cables and making them available in an easy to search format, states:

Arab-Persian enmity, with a strong undercurrent of rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims, dates back centuries but increased markedly after the overthrow of the shah and the Islamic revolution in 1979 and is now viewed as a struggle for hegemony in the region.

In short, according to these papers, the US’s main interest in the Middle East for over seven decades — oil (particularly control over oil production and distribution) — has little relevance to this conflict.  And the struggle for hegemony in the region has little to do with geopolitical interests — rather, it is rooted in religious and ethnic divisions.

In place of concrete analysis, we get an Islamophobic cliché which is based on the assumption that the roots of all (or most) actions by Arab states lie in Islam.  If this reductionism is applied to Arab nations, it is also applied to Iran as I show below.

What such explanations obscure is the real historical and political relationship between the US, Israel, and various US Arab allies.

In the case of the Gulf monarchies, which have long allied themselves closely with imperial nations (first Britain and then the US), control over oil resources trumps all other concerns.  For instance, the so-called “special relationship” between the US and Saudi Arabia is based on oil for security: the US needs to control oil in the region in order to be a global hegemon, and Saudi Arabia needs the US to shore up its defense capabilities in order to put down both external and internal threats to the rule of the Al Saud family.

Iran, since the fall of the US-backed Shah in 1979, has been seen as an external threat.  Saudi Arabia therefore buys billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the US and has been the backbone of the US defense industry.

Internal threats are all struggles that have the potential to disrupt the “special relationship” by threatening the control of the Al Saud family.  Thus, movements for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and democratic reform have been squashed by the ruling family, with the approval and help of the US.  When workers went on strike in the oil regions in the 1940s and 50s, the Al Saud family, with the assistance of the US oil company ARAMCO, ruthlessly suppressed the strikers and jailed, deported, or assassinated its leadership.  When women staged a “drive-in” in the early 1990s to seek greater rights for women, they were stripped of their passports and fired from their jobs.

These actions were not driven by “Islam.”  Rather, both the US and the Al Saud family (as well as the ruling families in other Gulf states) have little tolerance for democratic movements, fearing rightly that such actions will result in elevating the will of the people over theirs, which could upset the oil for security status quo.

And indeed, the will of the people does stand in opposition to the aforementioned leaders on the question of Iran.

In contrast to the hostility expressed by the leadership, a recent poll carried out by the Brookings Institution finds that regular people in several Arab nations don’t see Iran as a major threat.  Instead, 88% identified Israel as the biggest threat, followed closely by the US (77%).  A whooping 10% identified Iran as a threat to their interests.  So much for the historic Sunni-Shia enmity and Arab-Persian rivalry!

Additionally, in contrast again to the views held by the leadership, 75% of ordinary people were opposed to international efforts to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear program, stating that they believed that Iran had a right to its nuclear program.  57% even think that it would be positive development for the region if Iran acquired nuclear weapons.

It is therefore not surprising that the US’s Arab allies are not willing to publicly criticize Iran or offer open support for US efforts to “cut off the head of the snake.”  What this poll reveals is not only the contrasting views held by the Arab public and the leadership, but also that the majority of Arabs don’t see the world through the US/Israeli prism that is taken for granted by the corporate media.

Framing Iran

Media Stereotype of Iran

As I have argued elsewhere, the dominant media framing of the Iran-nukes discussion is one which draws from an Orientalist/Islamophobic logic that states that “insane” and “irrational” Muslim Iran cannot be trusted to have nuclear weapons.  This logic further takes for granted the proposition that the US has a legitimate right to police and adjudicate on questions of nuclear capabilities.

To the extent there is any debate in the corporate media, it is about whether the US should use diplomatic or military means to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Little time is devoted to shedding light on why Iran, as a rational political actor, might want to acquire nuclear weapons.  After all, Iran is surrounded by states that possess nukes such as India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Israel, not to mention by U.S. bases in Qatar, Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, which might have nuclear weapons.

What is also left out of the discussion is not only that Iran obtained its nuclear technology from the US, but that Iran’s nuclear technology is under the full oversight of the international community since it is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Yet, Israel which has not has not signed on to the NPT and which is known to be sitting on a stockpile of nukes is given a pass.  Perhaps more importantly, we are not asked to question why the US, which possesses the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world (and is the only country to have ever used such weapons), has a legitimate right to police other nations.

At the end of the day, the WikiLeaks cables reveal a lot about the mechanics of imperialism.  They not only provide concrete proof of the levels of duplicity and the self-serving logic that drives political actors on the international stage; they can also, if placed in proper historical context, shed light on the day-to-day functioning of empire.  But don’t expect to find such analyses in the corporate media.

Deepa Kumar is an Associate Professor in the Journalism and Media Studies Department at Rutgers University; she is also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers.  She is currently working on a book on Political Islam, US Policy and the News.  Read her blog Empire Bytes at <>.

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