Sooner or later, looking back to late 2010, people will start referring to pre- and post-Wikileaks periods. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the entire diplomatic corps was plunged into a state of shock by the website’s disclosures. Practically all the so-called revelations – which are, in the end, simply ‘opinions’ reported by US diplomats covering every possible situation under the sun – had already been reported by journalists in some area or other of the international media, but certain contents are nevertheless highly revealing.
For example, it has long been well known that Saudi Arabia would be prepared to use any means, licit or illicit, to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Gulf region and on the Shiite community all over the world. But to actually hear the monarchy in Riyadh requesting that Washington “crush the head of the Iranian serpent by military force, before it is too late” still creates quite an impression! As does the revelation – dated 9 December 2010 – that Saudi Arabia feels deeply menaced by Hezbollah, the Lebanese pro-Iran Shiite movement that controls southern Lebanon and part of Beirut.
On 28 May 2008 a meeting took place between the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and the senior US diplomat David Setterfield, focused entirely on the problem of Hezbollah. The Saudis expressed their desire for a military attack that would definitively resolve the problem of Iran’s influence in Lebanon. Claiming that the idea was also backed by the Arab League, Jordan and Egypt, it requested that NATO offer logistical support and air and naval coverage for the operation, while Arab troops provide the ground force. In his report to Washington, Setterfield described the plan as impractical. But the issue remains.
Government sources in Riyadh and Teheran have played the whole problem down. In his first post-Wikileaks institutional commitment, in Bahrain, the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki intervened at a Gulf nations summit to declare to the other participants at the table that “Our power in the region is your power”. Words, obviously. The facts point in a different direction: on 8 December two nephews of Maulana Abdulhamid Esmail-Zehi, the leader of the Arab and Sunni minority in Iran, were arrested in the Sunni-dominated province of Sistan-Baluchestan. In the past, in mosques in the provincial capital of Zahedan, Sunnis were forbidden to pray together with Shiites at Friday prayers. The province has been simmering violently since at least 2002.
That Saudi Arabia is certainly tempted by military options can be seen by its actions in Yemen, where the Shiite rebellion in the north was suffocated in blood. Another Wikileaks document describes the anxiety of a US diplomat in the Yemen as he complains of the Saudis’ excessive use of force against these rebels. The same source also criticises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others for financially supporting Sunni extremist groups… in an anti-Iranian key, obviously.
The waters of the Gulf are boiling. And to lower the temperature caused by these revelations, the US has ordered the aircraft carrier ‘Harry S. Truman’ to leave the Persian Gulf. The giant vessel, previously based with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, with responsibilities for security in the Gulf and the Red Sea, has now been assigned to the Sixth Fleet, with responsibilities for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The carrier is already on its way to the Aegean Sea, reducing the dangerous compression of active naval units off the Iranian coast. Will this suffice? Difficult to say. For now, despite pressure from its Arab allies and from Israel, the USA seems to be sticking to its policy of trying to contain Iran without resorting to military force.
Better to use diplomatic channels, at least for a while longer. The last round of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, in Geneva, produced nothing tangible except an appointment to meet again in Istanbul in late January. But the US has at least achieved one positive result recently: after years of unsuccessful pressure on the United Arab Emirates – known as “the bank of Iran”, for its role in helping Iran circumvent its sanctions problems – a key agreement has been reached: Abu Dhabi will build an oil pipeline reaching as far as the Arabian Sea, making it possible to avoid the Hormuz Straights. This pipeline will run from Hasban, south of the capital Abu Dhabi, to Fujairah, the only UAE province facing onto the Arabian Sea, thus providing a safety corridor that will finally make it possible to avoid the instability of the Gulf area under Iranian control.