Tensions in the Middle East are increasing as the fallout from the latest WikiLeaks revelations spreads. Previously reticent Arab states have been exposed as having discussed strikes on Iran with the US.
Hundreds of thousands of classified US embassy dispatches and documents, made public by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks on Sunday, included transcripts of conversations between Middle Eastern leaders and US diplomats and military officials.
Among the most inflammatory were those between Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus in which the Saudi monarch urged the US to stop Iran's nuclear program by any means necessary.
According to the April 20, 2008 transcript from Riyadh, King Abdullah called on the United States "to cut off the head of the snake" during the meeting.
This opinion was echoed in a separate document, dated November 4, 2009, in which Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is alleged to have told General Petraeus that Iran was "the source of much of the trouble in both Iran and Afghanistan" and that "the danger of letting [Iran's nuclear program] go on is greater than the danger of stopping it."
Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed is also named in a transcript, dated April 10, 2006, in which he allegedly told the Americans that he was "unwilling to wait much longer" in regard to taking action against Iran.
Unsurprisingly, conversations between US and Israel also tackle the Iran situation, with the Israeli officials telling the Americans in 2009 that Washington was running out of time to stop Tehran and that 2010 was the "critical year."
Revelations expose extent of Gulf States' concerns
The documents show the level of concern within the Middle East of Iran's nuclear ambitions and, contrary to the public declarations of a number of Arab states, the apparent willingness to deal with the threat militarily. While Israel's favoring of air strikes is well-known and documented, no Arab nations have gone on record as saying they would support US action or take their own to stop Tehran.
A particular danger to stability now lies in the perception that Arab states named in the documents are on the same page as the US and Israel in regard to policy toward Iran.
"The latest WikiLeaks revelations threaten to upset the balance in the Gulf States between the hostility of public opinion to US security involvement in regional affairs with their private acknowledgment of the US as their ultimate security guarantor," Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle. "They demonstrate the deep suspicions held by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states."
Little to surprise already skeptical Iranians
While the WikiLeaks revelations will have made the distrust and behind-the-scenes machinations public, Professor Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, believes the information revealed won't come as too great a shock to the Iranians.
"Iranian officials know that the Saudis don't trust them," Perthes told Deutsche Welle. "Much of what we can see of the small amount of cables so far published would not really add much beyond reinforcing suspicions that the Saudis are actually in cahoots with Washington, even though they pretend, in official meetings, that they value good neighborly relations."
Mehrdad Khonsari, senior research consultant at the Center for Arab & Iranian Studies in London, concurred. "There is nothing in these revelations that surprises the Iranian authorities," he said.
"They know how the Saudis as well as all the other Arabs feel about them. But the fact that these disclosures have become public is an embarrassment for the Saudis in their future dealings with Iran and a reminder to them of what the Iranians have been saying that you can never trust the Americans."
Saudi Arabia at risk of destabilization
However, while Iran may not be shocked into action by the revelations, factions within Saudi Arabia may be. There is an escalating unease in the kingdom itself over its allegiance to the United States, and its willingness to support the US and even join in with any military action it mounts against Iran.
Outwardly, the Saudis have been telling the United States that under no circumstances should it bomb Iran, or allow Israel to do so. Riyadh has publicly told the US that Saudi Arabia and its neighbors would not support such actions, that US support in the region would evaporate if it attacked Iran and that Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich allies would not make up any shortfall of crude production which would follow a US strike on Iran, OPEC's second-highest oil producer behind the Saudis.
The WikiLeaks' documents appear to contradict these public statements, a situation that may anger factions within Saudi Arabia.
"It is likely that much of the Sunni establishment in Saudi Arabia will agree with King Abdullah's characterization of the Iranian nuclear program as a threat that needs to be halted and removed," Ulrichsen said. "It is the reaction of Saudi Arabia's Shiite communities in the Eastern Province that will be interesting, as they have suffered from relative socio-economic marginalization."
"Iran could use the revelations to signify that the gloves are now off, and ratchet up its overt and covert activities, including the presumed existence of sleeper cells in Saudi Arabia and throughout the GCC which could be activated to sow political and regional instability."
Militants eager to exploit divisions in Saudi Arabia
Any threat to the monarchy - either through agitation from within or problems arising from a succession as King Abdullah's health fails - will be a concern to the West. In August, al Qaeda called on its soldiers in Osama bin Laden's homeland to overthrow the Saudi royal family. A Saudi kingdom in chaos would be hugely destabilizing to the wider region, not to mention the world's oil industry.
"There is a danger that Saudis of Yemeni origin in the three southern border provinces of Asir, Najran and Jizan may react to the documents' revelations of American support for Saudi Arabia's military strikes against the Houthi Shia separatist group in 2009-10 by extending active or passive support to the cross-border Saudi-Yemeni branch of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said Ulrichsen.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge