Fear of Iran Captured in WikiLeaks Documents

January 4th, 2011

Mehrangiz Kar & Azadeh Pourzand

The release of WikiLeaks documents made visible a historic sense of animosity between Arab states and Iran. Fearing Iran’s nuclear program, in WikiLeaks documents some Arab authorities had asked the US to plan a military strike against Iran. Political stakeholders each benefited differently from the public release of these documents. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, publicly denounced the legitimacy of these documents.  According to him, they were fake documents made by the US government in order to break the unity of Islamic nations in the region. Secretary of State in the US, Hillary Clinton, considered these documents a proof of nations’ concerns about the nuclear program in Iran. Nonetheless, Arab authorities have not yet released public statements about WikiLeaks documents. Perhaps, given the sensitivity of the issue at hand, they prefer to keep their opinions to themselves.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows well that the unity of Muslim nations is a dream made impossible due to conflicts deeply rooted in history. For instance, the friendship of Iran with the Arab world is a difficult dream to realize. Firstly, the rule of political Shia in the Iranian government creates an obstacle in the formation of sincere friendships with Sunni countries. There are many historic reasons that prevent Persians and Arabs from sincere friendships and unity. Nevertheless, the Iranian government continues to advocate for the unity of the Muslim world against the imperialist West. Thus, it is not surprising that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad downplays the importance of the recent WikiLeaks documents and denounces their legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Secretary Clinton’s statement about WikiLeaks documents represents the current challenges of the US government concerning Iran. The interpretation that she offered the public mainly revolved around the region’s rising concerns about nuclear Iran. Implicit in her comments there was a threat of a military strike against Iran with Arab countries in the region mobilized alongside the US; this is if all other diplomatic efforts fail with Iran. Therefore, her statement makes it clear that Iran would ultimately have to face a military strike if it continues its uncooperative behavior.

What becomes interesting in the WikiLeaks debates is that Arab authorities have chosen to privately communicate their fear of Iran with the US while publicly behaving otherwise. As follows, taking a close look at the current Wikileaks debates a number of important questions come to mind: Why have Arab authorities expressed their concerns about the nuclear capabilities of Iran through private correspondence with the US?  Why are they still refraining from making public statements in regards to WikiLeaks documents? It is, indeed, essential to refer to socio-political analysis in seeking responses for the aforementioned question.

When looking beyond politics, it becomes obvious that the Muslim world has grown extremely sensitive to the Palestinian issue since decades ago.  Governments in the Muslim world cannot disregard their nations’ collective emotions about Palestine. Almost all of these countries include the Palestinian cause in their publicly announced foreign policy. As such, even if governments in Muslim-majority populations do not want to sympathize with Palestine, they do so as they fear their people who, more often than not, are in favor of an autonomous Palestinian state.

The release of the high level private correspondences between Saudi Arabia and the US about a military strike on Iran could weaken the political stability of Saudi Arabia.  The majority of Arabs and Muslims do not want their governments to damage Palestine by attacking its friends and supporters such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, the people in the region’s Arab states would align with their governments against Iran only if they consider Iran a real threat to their autonomy and security.

In the current situation, Iran does not threaten the autonomy or the short-term security of Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government –that is denounced by many Iranians for its violations of human rights—enjoys extensive popularity in many Muslim nations throughout the world as it openly criticizes the US and Israel.  The Islamic Republic of Iran spends a noticeable part of its oil revenue to gain and maintain this level of popularity in the world. Thus, the release of the WikiLeaks documents ultimately damages the relationship of Saudi Arabia with its people who do not want to see their country engaged in a war with an important supporter of Palestine.

This tension between the people and government in regards to Israel in Muslim countries is not specific to Saudi Arabia. It is now a long while that the positioning of governments against Israel in many Muslim countries has become a forceful tool in maintaining political stability. As such, it is going to be tough for Saudi Arabia to manage the consequences that WikiLeaks documents may have among the Saudis and other Arab nations.

It is important to observe and analyze the policies that Saudi Arabia will pursue in the aftermath of this incident. It would be naïve to assume that the release of these documents have caught Iran by surprise as the Iranian government must have heard about the position of Saudi Arabia through other sources. If conducting a military strike against Iran takes priority in the US the theories discussed here will become irrelevant. If not, WikiLeaks documents are not going to stop Iran from its current nuclear developments.

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The Persian Gulf: A Name that Triggers National Pride

Mehrangiz Kar

Recently it was revealed that the US Navy referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf” in its correspondences with Arab allies. In spite of historic disputes over the choice of wording (Persian vs. Arab) for this strategically significant body of water, the name Persian Gulf is considered official and recognized by most countries in the world (including the US). The use of “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf” has created strong reactions among Iranians throughout the world. In response to reactions by Iranians and others, sources close to the US Navy told a BBC Persian reporter, “This decision was made because US allies in the region generally and in their official correspondence use the term Arabian Gulf and we have stopped using the term Persian Gulf in order to be in line with them and will now be using the term the Arabian Gulf.”

This incident raises a number of questions: Would the use of “Arabian” instead of “Persian” by the US for the sake of staying in line with the allies in the region help ease tensions in the Middle East? Would extending a historic dispute into the already tense climate help to create an additional political dynamic in the region? Or is it going to simply amplify the Arab vs. Persian, Sunni vs. Shia and other ethnic disputes in the region? Shouldn’t the US, instead, focus on helping the countries in the region to overcome their historic and ethnic disputes and to focus on the current regional problems that beg the attention and collaboration of all stakeholders including Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries?

To say that the Persian Gulf is Arabian Gulf is not a simple matter and it certainly triggers national pride against external forces such as the US and Arab nations among millions of Iranians who may or may not oppose the current government in Iran. While millions of Iranians are frustrated with President Ahmadinejad’s repressive policies and seek social, political and economic justice, they will not allow external forces to violate their national pride. Throughout history Iranians are notorious for their persistence in keeping the borders of Iran intact against foreign enemies and the Iranians of today are no exception to this long history of patriotism.

It would be a mistake to assume that the rising level of Iranian people’s dissatisfactions with their government leads to the toleration of an assault on the territorial integrity of Iran. The change of the name of a gulf that is utterly important for Iran’s present and future prosperity simply awakens deep emotions among Iranians from all political, religious, social and economic backgrounds. Consequently, such actions by the US will damage the organic growth of oppositions against the current government in Iran, as it will unite the people and the repressive government against external forces. Iranians prioritize matters of national pride and resistance against foreign enemies over domestic dissatisfactions and tensions. Thus, by changing the name of the Persian Gulf in order to keep its allies content, the US risks losing another important ally to whom it has continuously promised respect: the people of Iran.

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Goodbye to energy subsidies, hello to price controls?

On what he called “the historic economic night,” President Ahmadinejad appeared on Iranian television to announce the imminent launch of the subsidy reform law, starting with energy prices at midnight (see below for new prices). He produced an impressive array of facts and figures from memory hoping to calm fears about the adverse impact of the reform, and showing his government’s command of the situation with statements like: “we have carefully thought of every eventuality”. So far he seems to have succeeded: Day one of the implementation has gone by without panic buying or serious incident.

Patience and gradualism seems to have paid off. The plan has been in public view for some time and the money that people call “the subsidy” (but is actually the cash in lieu of the removal of subsidies!) has been in individual bank accounts for the last few months, though they could not withdraw it (as of this morning they were able to do so). It has also helped to calm nerves that the government extended the low price allocation (1000 rials per liter for 50 liters and good for about 500-1000 kilometers) for an additional month. For most people, this gesture has in effect delayed the start of the price increases by a month. The computerized allocation system using “gasoline cards”, which has been installed in gas stations across the country, is the key instrument that has made gradual and stepwise price increases possible. Reports this evening did not indicate unusually long lines at gas stations, nor were there panic withdrawals of the “subsidy money” from banks.

Responses of producers to the energy price increases are more difficult to predict. At 7:30 this morning, I noticed that the “agence” taxi waiting for me was actually the familiar green colored “line taxi” (cabs that run along a specific route and charge about 30 to 50 cents) rather than the private car I usually expect. The driver had obviously skipped his regular “line” service, where the fees are more tightly controlled, thinking he might have more luck with passengers in an unregulated service. He said other “line taxi” drivers had simply not shown up for work.

Such a supply response is to be expected. The government has been claiming, disingenuously, that there will be no inflation, and called on producers to refrain from raising prices. Going further, President Ahmadinejad even invited people to call in if they see unusual price increases. So, it seems natural for supply to contract, as it seems to have done in the line taxi service based on my single observation!
Some inflation is better than price controls that can disrupt the supply of goods and services. Relative prices need to adjust in line with the different energy intensities’ of different products, and to help resources flow to sectors that need to expand in response to higher energy prices, while other sectors contract. Since prices rarely go down, inflation is the only way for this to happen. Costs are increasing for producers across the board; they either have to cut back on supply or raise prices. Finally, the “subsidy money” now in the pockets of consumers is just the additional liquidity that will help producers find customers as they raise prices.

Let’s hope the government is not serious about its “zero inflation” target and will not hassle producers and retailers with harsh price controls. In my view, it would be enough of an achievement for the current plan to succeed and Iran gets rid of its vast energy subsidies, even with some inflation. That would prove the critics wrong and become a model for other countries that are looking for a way to wean their citizens off cheap energy.

Footnote: Here are the main price changes: the price of gasoline has gone up from 1000 rials per liter to 4000 (7000 above 60 liters per month, which is close to the world price); diesel, up from 165 rials per liter to 1500 (3500 above quota); and CNG (compressed natural gas for vehicles) from 350 rials to 3000 per cubic meter.

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The Changing Dynamics of the U.S. – Arab Regimes Relations: Readings from Wikileaks

The recent Wikileaks release of thousands of United States Embassy cables, though not as shocking as expected, has revealed part of the mysterious relationship between American administrations and Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. The leaks challenge many of the commonly held assumptions about the dynamics of this relationship. Two main issues are worth noting here.

Firstly, it is clear that the issue of democracy in the Middle East is not among the priorities of the U.S. administration as assumed by many civil rights and democracy advocates around the world. In all the leaked cables, there is no mention of any sort of pressure on Middle Eastern regimes to accept more political reform. On the contrary, many of the cables show that America seeks advice from Middle Eastern leaders regarding the political formation of the Iraqi government which was supposed to be the model of democracy in the region. In fact, one of the cables notes that the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak advised the United States in 2008 to “forget about democracy in Iraq and allow a dictator to take over. Mubarak’s advice was: “Strengthen the [Iraqi] armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis by their nature are too tough.”

Secondly, it seems that the U.S. influence on Middle Eastern regimes is relatively shrinking. Many of the cables referred to uncooperative attitude of some states in the region.  This challenges the commonly held assumption – at least in the Middle East – that most of the Arab regimes offer excessive services to the U.S. in order to earn its support and assure their stay in power. In one of the cables, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo Margaret Scobey, describes Egypt as “a stubborn and recalcitrant ally.” In another cable, Hilary Clinton refers to the difficulty of convincing the Saudi regime to stop donations which according to her, go to terrorist organizations. She notes that “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”

So far, the leaked cables don’t cover the period between 9/11 and the second Iraq War which I believe, have witnessed the most critical deals between the U.S. Government and many Middle Eastern regimes. In the next few weeks we might learn more about this mysterious relationship if more cables see the light.

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Wikileak cables from the "Egoistic Psyche" of Persia to the "Arab Street"

OK. It’s time for another modest addition to the fun new academic game of “making sense of Cablegate,” Wikileaks’ release of the first set of thousands of leaked US foreign service documents.

But before I get to my point, a few clear disclaimers.

First, I agree largely with my UMass colleague, Charli Carpenter, that the foreign policy details to date are nothing shocking.

Second, so far at least, I’m not convinced that the documents inspire the sort of outrage about US government duplicity that Wikileaks suggests we should feel. Perhaps because I have lots of well-meaning, thoughtful friends in the US foreign service or at the State Department, I tend to see these documents as diverse, often entailing good focused analysis, or, at least,  faithful reproduction of what leaders say to each other behind (somewhat) closed doors.  In fact, until Wikileaks releases everything it has, and unless we can compare it somehow to all the stuff that is not being released,  it’s hard to make any sweeping generalizations about what all of this means.

So,  accepting the relatively unsurprising  nature of the revelations about US foreign policy substance and the difficulty of making broad claims, I looked at cables from US outposts in the Gulf just to see what style and rhetoric of analysis are on display.

And I did find something disturbing.  In August 1979, as the Iranian Revolution was consolidating and the emerging government was stirring up popular antipathy to the US, a secret cable made broad stereotypes about the egoistic psyche of Persians, and their unreliability in negotiations.  Almost exactly thirty years later, another partly-secret analysis of Iran underscored the decline in popularity on “the Arab street” of Iranian President Ahmadinejad after the 2009 election cycle.

Now I don’t want to pick too much on either cable. Lord knows the 1979 one is an easy target and will receive lots of comment. And the 2009 cable quotes a variety of specific Arab media sources that suggest its author seeks local evidence which is clearly unlike anything that can back up the broad racial stereotypes of the earlier memo.

Yet I wish my point could be, “look how much US diplomatic analysis has advanced in its reliance on good research and detail in 30 years!” Instead, looking at the two documents in tandem has me frustrated by how easy it is, even for knowledgeable analysts, to fall into the pattern of broad generalizations about large groups of people in a variety of places in a way that seems dismissive.  If contemporary Arabs seem of one basic mindset that is subject to manipulation, as the 2009 cable suggests,  this is less real than a construct propagated by some of the more repressive regimes in the region, as a way of delegitimating internal and external pressure for widened citizen representation. Most of us who study actual Arab politics know the “Arab street” to be a misleading image with something of a whiff of the cultural condescension towards non-Israeli Middle Easterners that is more evidently stinky in the 1979 memo.

So why do even good, regionally-grounded, knowledgeable foreign service analysts still indulge in terms that carry a trace odor of broad-based stereotyping? These two leaked (reeked?) cables read in tandem and my general experience suggest three possible answers:

(1) It’s easier to report conclusions about simple mass attitudes than more subtle distinctions, something we know to be even more sadly true in much broader American political discourse these days.

(2) It can be hard for US diplomats to escape their high-profile, somewhat shielded, security-conscious lives to get a window on the diversity of perspectives in the countries in which they live.

(3) If the subject is something important in a country’s policy, where there are strong central opinions, such as the post-Shah Iranian government in the US, there are incentives to make large claims about problems with this foreign government. Both memo-writers, even though I trust they believe in their analysis, have some reason to amplify the likelihood of the unreliability or unpopularity of Tehran’s leadership.

I guess we’ll all have to stay tuned to “Cablegate” to see if generalizations like this make sense.  For the moment at least, I’m concerned about the ease these two cables suggests of drawing simplistic conclusions about Arab or Persian people as a whole. Yet I don’t myself think these cables should get us riled-up about US diplomacy generally. Indeed, I’m confident that most US foreign service officers at least know whether or not North Korea is an ally.

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Egyptian Parliamentary Elections: Political Vacuum and Predictable Outcomes

Every time I decide to go and vote in Egyptian parliamentary elections, I face the same dilemma: there is nobody I want to vote for! Either  vote for the National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate, who usually has no clear agenda, an unimpressive political history and reputation, and most importantly, represents a party that has been ruling the country for decades without many significant achievements. Or vote for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidates, with their ambiguous agendas regarding the rights of religious minorities and women, and a possible intention to establish a religious state in Egypt.

This dilemma faces the majority of Egyptians if they decide to get engaged in political elections. There is a clear political vacuum in the country. Egypt actually has more than twenty parties, however the majority of them have no actual influence or presence in the political arena. They are commonly referred to as “cartoon parties.” During the last three decades, the National Democratic Party, supported by all governmental institutions and thirty years of emergency laws, manages to hinder the role of other political parties allowing only the banned Muslim Brotherhood Organization to play a controlled role in the political arena.

This has allowed the Egyptian regime to use the Muslim Brotherhood as a scare tactic  in the face of local and international calls for democracy in Egypt. The regime became the only acceptable option for the international community  and in particular the U.S. administration. Claims that ending emergency laws and holding free elections will allow the Muslim Brotherhood to rule Egypt are continuously used by the regime supporters to justify the slow path of democratic reforms in the country.

Next week, the elections will be held. It will probably feature some violations and fraud and the National Democratic Party will win the vast majority of seats leaving very few spots to some of the tamed independent opposition candidates and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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The UAE and Carbon Emissions

A recent carbon report issued by the British consultancy group Maplecroft, indicated that the UAE dominated the global ranking of top per capita carbon emitters. The list, which studied the carbon emissions of 183 countries, noted that the UAE was the world’s number one carbon emitter, due in a large part to the ballooning energy demand linked to the increased dependency on energy intensive desalination plants. The index gave a 50 percent weighting to current per capita emissions of greenhouse gases, 25 percent to total national emissions and the remaining 25 percent to cumulative historic emissions.

China, although it has the world’s largest aggregate carbon emissions, was at the 26th rank on a per capita basis, due significantly to its large population that still resides in relatively underdeveloped areas.

The UAE is cognizant of the need to battle its high per capita carbon emissions; it has launched several ambitious plans in recent years such as the hosting of the International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters (IRENA), the Masdar project (to build the world’s first carbon neutral city), as well as a giant concentrated solar plant, christened Shams 1.

The listing of the UAE at the top of a relatively unflattering ranking is likely to motivate Emirati policy makers to consider the feasibility of launching a carbon trading platform seriously. Much as the Chinese, the Emiratis have realized that there is an inverse relationship between energy efficiency and carbon intensity, to lower one implies an increase in the other. Therefore, undertaking a comprehensive carbon mitigation plan will have the beneficial net impact of reducing the UAE’s burgeoning energy demand.


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