By Symi Rom-Rymer
Much of the discussion over the Wikileaks dump has focused on the negative impact of the released cables. But there may be a silver lining. Within the diplomatic community it may come as no surprise that Arab leaders expressed great concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions in private, but this is the first time that their true feelings have been publically revealed. Using aggressive, undiplomatic language, leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan exhorted American diplomats (respectively) to “cut off the head of the snake” and informed them, in eerily familiar echoes, that “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.”
While the release of the cables demonstrates Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange’s lack of respect for or understanding of diplomatic reality, they nevertheless provide a unique opportunity for Western, Israeli, and Arab governments to launch a different kind of discussion on Iran. Fear of the “Arab street” and subsequent political fallout is the oft-cited reason as to why Arab leaders have been so duplicitous on Iran and similarly sensitive issues. But now that anyone with internet access can now see for themselves how Arab leaders truly feel about Iran, these leaders will finally find out if their fears were justified or if, as Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy asks, “will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they [Arab leaders] really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like?” Even if the “Arab street” does turn against them, it is too late to retract their words and for a short window of time, the West and Israel can use that “diplomatic heresy” to pressure Arab leaders to publicly come out of the closet about a nuclear Iran.
But this new kind of conversation need not, indeed should not, occur only among top leadership but also on a grassroots level. If these leaks show anything, it is that the disconnect between public and private rhetoric about the Middle East has not ameliorated the situation. While the wheels of diplomacy turn slowly and often in secret, Sunni-Arab states and their populations have as much to lose as Israel as potential targets of an Iranian attack. The release of these cables offer Western, Israeli, and Arab activists alike a rare opportunity to gain inside knowledge and to use that incontrovertible proof as leverage when they demand a more open conversation on Iran.
As the Wikileaks story has been playing out, I’m continuously reminded of a scene in the West Wing between President Bartlett and a Republican opponent in which each traded stereotypical insults about other, but in the end admitted that there was one point on which they could both agree and move forward on together. Iran is that point for Arab, Western, and Israeli leaders. They may harbor distrust or even genuine hatred for one or the other side, but the leaks have publicly revealed how very close they are on this particular issue and present an opportunity for all of them to work together towards a common goal: containing Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Moreover, if a good working relationship among Arab states and Israel on this issue can be established, perhaps it will open to the door for more productive negotiations on another Middle East stalemate–the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
At the risk of butchering a metaphor, the leaked cables may have handed out many lemons over these past few days, but it has also offered a chance to make some damned good lemonade. So pass the juicer.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.