Qaddafi worried about a U.S. military presence in Africa.
Bernie Madoff once discussed investment opportunities with Qaddafi.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe OK'd "clandestine operations" against FARC rebels across the border in Venezuela.
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia (and later Afghanistan) William Wood was not aware of the top Colombian military leader's dodgy résumé.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce tried to take down Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
China used U.S. debt obligations to pressure the United States on arms sales to Taiwan.
For the first time since World War II, Japan is building a full-blown foreign intelligence agency.
U.S. diplomats pushed Norway to buy American-made fighter jets.
Britain blocked an arms sale to Swaziland over fears the weapons could end up in Iran.
Bahrain's crown prince is not a big fan of the whole democracy thing.
A British judge rules in favor of Julian Assange's extradition to Sweden.
George W. Bush doesn't like the idea of sharing a stage with Assange.
Gaddafi's "voluptuous nurse" has had enough of Libya.
WikiLeaks cable revelations are factoring in Peru's 2011 elections.
PayPal freezes the account of a group raising defense funds for Pfc. Bradley Manning.
More on HBGary, the cybersecurity firm that tried to take down WikiLeaks' supporters.
WikiLeaks now has a gift shop.
Anonymous makes "The Colbert Report" (slightly NSFW)
THE BIG PICTURE
The Libyan frogman who couldn't swim.
The FBI pursues a team of alleged Qatari would-be 9/11 conspirators in the United States.
The rift between Washington and Beijing is deeper than either government would like you to think.
The United States' secret space arms race with China.
A Croatian man tries to get back at his ex-girlfriend by telling U.S. embassy officials that she's hanging out with Osama bin Laden.
Making an oil and gas deal in Russia is really complicated.
Newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman is close to Mubarak and foreign intelligence agencies, but not Mubarak's son. And a lot of people seem to think Mubarak's new deputy prime minister is a bureaucratic dinosaur.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuses Syria and Iran of arming Iraqi militants.
Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh wants his money.
U.S. diplomats doubt reforms are on the way in Jordan.
Did WikiLeaks hack into New York Times reporters' email accounts?
WikiLeaks' release process has become so complicated that even the papers involved don't know what's a scoop anymore.
Amnesty International wants Britain to pressure the U.S. government over the treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning.
THE BIG PICTURE
George W. Bush administration Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith thinks Assange will be prosecuted in the United States.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger talk WikiLeaks.
Forty-two percent of Americans have no idea what WikiLeaks is.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
1. North Korea, complete arseholes -- even the Chinese have outgrown them.
2. Russia, a whole country run like The Sopranos only with less charm and public spiritedness.
3. Iran, such manifest dips***s that even their neighbours want them dead.
Ok, the ban is back on now.
Essargee - Office of Government Reports/U.S. National Archive
In March 2010, then-CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus set off a storm of protest among neoconservatives when, in his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he named "insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace" as an obstacle to U.S. goals in the region.
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]," read the statement. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world." At the same time, Petraeus concluded, "Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
While this represented only one of a number of "cross cutting challenges to security and stability" detailed in his statement, Petraeus' analysis was too much for the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who quickly issued a scolding: "Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict," said Foxman. "This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive."
That such a carefully calibrated statement of the obvious should draw condemnation from the ADL -- as if the very suggestion that Israel's conflicts could create difficulties for its American patron were itself a form of defamation -- indicates how uncomfortable the notion of "linkage" makes many Israel hawks.
An otherwise mind-numbing cable recounting a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Herve Morin, his French counterpart -- which my colleague Josh Rogin wrote about last week -- contains this nugget:
Recalling that Russian Prime Minister Putin once told him Iran was Russia's greatest threat, SecDef noted that Russia could plug into the new [missile-defense] system.
There's also this bit, which echoes what Gates has said in public:
Morin asked SecDef [Gates] if he believed Israel had the capability to strike Iran without U.S. support. SecDef responded that he didn't know if they would be successful, but that Israel could carry out the operation. SecDef told Morin that he believed a conventional strike by any nation would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.
If there's one thing the WikiLeaks disclosures are revealing, it's that the Iranian government is run by morons. Here's Iranian Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashai reacting to the cables in an interview with Der Spiegel:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you surprised by the clarity with which some Gulf States, as well as Egypt, call upon the United States to stop Tehran's nuclear ambitions?
Mashai: These documents are not authentic. The national interests of the United States and its allies are behind this. They see the world through their eyes, pursue their own goals, and draw the conclusions that suit their purposes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the intentions of the United States, in your view?
Mashai: America wants to portray itself as the leader of the world, as master of the destinies of nations. It wants to play off the regimes in the region against one another. It wants the world to believe that we are divided. It wants to legitimize its presence and influence in the region.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the diplomatic reports were published against Washington's will and are damaging to the United States. The WikiLeaks disclosures are not a State Department PR campaign.
Mashai: Are you sure about that? How, then, did WikiLeaks gain access to the documents?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Presumably through a US Army private who had access to a central government database and has since been arrested.
Mashai: Do you believe that? Then you must be very naïve indeed. No, the United States is behind this deliberate leak. The Americans are trying to paint the world in black and white. They underscore the differences among nations and want to show everyone that peace is only possible in cooperation with them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you question the authenticity of the more than 250,000 documents?
Mashai: I don't want to get into individual documents and their authenticity. But I have no doubt that a US government plan is behind this disclosure. When someone wants to suggest something, they include fake information with real information so as to create a certain impression. That's why each country has to analyze the documents that relate to it, which is what our experts in Tehran are doing now.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, you do take the embassy reports very seriously.
Mashai: We are only examining them to figure out the Americans' tricks.
For those not already predisposed to view everything the United States does in the world as preternaturally evil, one common reaction to the WikiLeaks cables has been relief that U.S. diplomats actually have a good sense of what is going on. As Joshua Kucera put it in an article for FP, "U.S. Foreign Service officers might not like their confidential correspondence aired in public, but overall, the cables portray them as smart and perceptive, and with no illusions about the countries they are dealing with."
But this is not universally the case. Take this cable from the Iran "regional presence office" in Dubai, signed by the office's acting director Timothy Richardson. Written several days before the June 2009 presidential election, it finds the United States hoping for the United Arab Emirates to defeat Iran in soccer, a loss that "could further weaken Ahmadinejad’s standing among soccer-crazed Iranians":
A loss to the UAE, Iran’s political and economic rival across the Strait of Hormuz, would be deeply embarrassing to Iranian national pride and could very well damage Ahmadinejad’s image in the mind of the Iranian electorate. According to contacts, Ahmadinejad “cannot afford” a loss on the eve of the election in such a tight race. Some in Iran doubt that Ahmadinejad will even make an appearance at the UAE match after he was deemed a “jinx” by superstitious fans, who linked his arrival at Azadi Stadium for Iran’s last home match against Saudi Arabia with the downturn in the game. However, Ahmadinejad has given no indication that he plans to disassociate himself from Team Melli on the verge of elimination. “Unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues,” he told Iranian media on June 7. “I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”
Grasping at straws much? In case you're wondering, Iran won the match 1-0.
Via Arabist.net, here's an interesting cable, dated January 2008, from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Titled "BLUEBLOOD SHIA CLERIC COMMENTS ON "BACKWARD" SADRISTS AND SISTANI'S FEARS AND FRUSTRATIONS," the cable describes a meeting with Emad Klanter, a member of a prominent clerical family in Najaf (my emphasis):
Son of a respected Najafi Ayatollah, nephew to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, related by marriage to Muqtada al-Sadr, and bearing a faint resemblance to the actor Robert De Niro, Klanter is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad but was not wearing the traditional Shia Sayyid's garb of black turban and cloak during our meeting at the IZ villa of Saad Jabr, a Saddam-era exile opposition financier and son of Iraq's first Shia Prime Minister.
It goes on to find Klanter, who calls the Sadrists "backward, almost like they are from a cave," fretting about will happen when U.S. troops leave. " Swinging his arms into an abbreviated 'Gator Chomp' type of gesture," the cable's author relays, "he said that if the U.S, leaves 'Iran will swallow us whole.'"
Or maybe Saudi Arabi will. Another interesting cable dated September 2009 and signed by former U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill paraphrases one interlocutor saying that "Saudi influence in Iraq was significant, perhaps more significant than Iran’s at the moment, given the financial and media assets at its disposal, and given Iran’s recent internal distractions."
The U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan sure knows how to write a headline. Here's a cable from the Baku mission released by WikiLeaks over the weekend, beginning with the subject line "IRAN: NINJA BLACK BELT MASTER DETAILS USE OF MARTIAL ARTS CLUBS FOR REPRESSION:"
xxxxxxxxxxxx a licensed martial arts coach and trainer xxxxxxxxxxxx, told Baku Iran watcher that private martial arts clubs and their managers are under intense pressure to cooperate with Iranian intelligence and Revolutionary Guard organizations, both in training members and in working as "enforcers" in repression of protests and politically motivated killings.
It goes on:
xxxxxxxxxxxx said he personally knew one such martial arts master whom he said was used by the Intelligence service to murder at least six different individuals over the course of several months in xxxxxxxxxxxx said that the victims included intellectuals and young "pro-democracy activists," adding that his assassin acquaintance was ultimately "suicided" by the authorities (i.e., killed in what was subsequently labeled a suicide).
I hesitate to pass judgment on this one way or the other, since I don't know anything beyond what's in the cable. (This video dug up from YouTube by Mother Jones's Daniel Schulman suggests there are at least some ninjas in Iran, though what their politics are is unclear.) It's probably worth noting, though, that ninjas have not been a particularly effective tool of statecraft since the 18th century. But hey, who knows?
Is Tehran convinced the United States is out to steal its oil? Here's Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a cable describing a Jan. 14, 2009, meeting in the capital city of Astana between Nazarbayev and U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, in which the Kazakh leader recounts his recent conversations with Iran's leaders:
[Nazarbayev] said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni told him that even if Iran compromises on the nuclear issue, the United States would always find another reason to criticize "because they hate us -- all the United States wants is to conquer the entire region and steal the oil." General Petraeus interjected, "We could have bought all the oil in the region for 100 years for what we've spent in Iraq!" Nazarbayev, looking a bit amused, said, "I know. I'm just telling you what he said."
The cable, signed by Richard Hoagland, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, is also interesting for Nazarbayev's pretty shrewd insights into Afghan politics. Nazarbayev is worried about publicized efforts to bring the Taliban into the Kabul government. Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, replies that this is just an attempt to break up the movement, while roping certain elements into the power circle. That's all well and good, Nazarbayev replies, but suggests that the Taliban is all about control, and not sharing power: "The Taliban leadership will never change its position," Nazarbayev says.
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
The Saudis always want to "fight the Iranians to the last American" and it is "time for them to get in the game," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister in a newly released cable from February 2010. This captures perfectly the point I made yesterday about how to read the reporting in these cables about the private hawkishness of Arab leaders. The question of Arabs and Iran was never an information problem -- it's an analysis problem. The antipathy which many of these leaders feel for Iran has long been well known. But so has their reluctance to do anything about it. And so have the internal divisions within Arab governments and Gulf ruling families, and their deep fears of either Iranian retaliation or popular upheaval, and their bottomless hunger for U.S. weapons systems, and their hopes that the U.S. would magically solve their problems for them, and the disconnect between the palaces and the public.
Iran hawks have been gloating that the quotes from a few Arab leaders in the initial cable release vindicate their analysis and discredit skeptics of military action against Iran. It doesn't. Gates' comment about the Saudis needing to "get into the game" came almost two years after King Abdullah's now-famous "cut off the head of the snake" comment. And another cable from January 2008 shows Abdullah telling Sarkozy that Saudi Arabia "does not want to inflame the situation," recommends "continued international engagement" with Iran and "is not yet ready to take any action besides diplomacy." Maybe, just maybe, those private remarks weren't actually a very reliable guide to what the Saudis will really do in public?
The way the Iran hawks have been leaping at a few juicy quotes while ignoring the entire well-known context only shows the ongoing poverty of their analysis. I would expect better from the serious analysts on the hawkish side, but, well, there you are.
(Note: updated to include the Sarkozy-Abdullah cable)
Almost all of the discussion about the WikiLeaks documents seems to have followed the lead of the New York Times in emphasizing a few of the cables showing inflammatory private anti-Iranian rants by Arab figures such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Hamed of Bahrain and Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. A lot of Iran hawks are taking this as proof that the Arabs really do want war with Iran. I can understand why they are leaping at the framing, either to score points or to pave the way towards normalizing the idea of a military strike. But that's only one small part of what the cables which have been released show. So, in response to Jeffrey Goldberg, I've got to say that I think that the cables show that he got Israeli views mostly right, as I wrote at the time. But I also think that they show that I got the Arab views mostly right too.
The cables thus far released show that most Arab leaders deeply fear rising Iranian power and want the U.S. to solve their problems for them, and that in private Jordanian, Egyptian and Gulf leaders expound at length on Tehran's perfidy (as many of us have heard before, without the benefit of leaked cables). They are indeed "suspicious and hostile towards Iran." But they also fear retaliation by Iran and exposure before their own public opinion, are internally divided about how to respond, and insist on keeping their private views to themselves. And Arab public opinion is sharply against war with Iran, despite years of anti-Iranian propaganda in the Saudi-backed Arab media, and harshly critical of much of the foreign policy of these regimes. As Mossad Director Meir Dagan bluntly, and accurately, put it in one of the leaked cables, the Arab states "all fear Iran, but want someone else to do the job for them."
There's plenty of evidence throughout the cables of the well-known suspicions of Iran in Arab palaces -- with some of the wildest comments coming from Egyptian officials. But there's also plenty of evidence of their reluctance to get involved in military action. In February, for instance, the office director of Kuwait's Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that "Kuwaitis are equally concerned about military pre-emption, which they believe would not prove decisive and would lead Iran to lash out at US interests in the Gulf." An Omani military official says " he advocated a non-military solution as the best option for the U.S." The Saudi Foreign Ministry "strongly advised against taking military action to neutralize Iran's program." In other words, "while Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation."
And there's even more examples in the cables of their desire to avoid taking a public stance. Hosni Mubarak rails about Iranian support for terrorism in private, but then says that this is "well-known but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation." An Israeli official tells his American counterpart that "Emiratis are "not ready to do publicly what they say in private." The Kuwaitis "will welcome any proposals that can move Iran off its nuclear path… but will not expose itself to Iranian ire by getting out front to push for these." Or, in other words, "those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed."
The point here is not to say that the cautious views matter and the hawkish ones don't. Nor does it say that Arab leaders haven't been calling for tough measures against Iran, since they have been doing just that for years. It's to say that Arab leaders are divided and uncertain about how to deal with Iran, and fearful of taking a strong position in public. In other words, it would be a mistake to "make too much of the private remarks of selected Arab regime figures, without considering whether those remarks reflect an internal consensus within their regimes or whether they will be repeated in public in a moment of political crisis." That's pretty much still where we are today.
On a February trip to the Middle East, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told Qatari leaders that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, that a Palestinian capital should be established in East Jerusalem as part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that he was "shocked" by what he saw on a visit to Gaza.
Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a visit to Qatar during separate meetings with Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as revealed by the disclosure of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
The emir told Kerry to focus on Syria as the path toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kerry agreed with the emir that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a man who wants change but pointed out that his arming of Hezbollah and interference in Lebanese politics were unhelpful. Kerry said that Assad "needs to make a bolder move and take risks" for peace, and that he should be "more statesman-like." Kerry also agreed with the emir that the Golan Heights should be given back to Syria at some point.
"The Chairman added that Netanyahu also needs to compromise and work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace," the diplomatic cable reported.
As for the peace process, Kerry defended the Obama administration's drive to use indirect proximity talks (which were only being discussed at that time) as a stepping stone to direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He said the two sides should first agree on the amount of land to be swapped and then work on borders, followed by settlements.
Kerry also said that final agreement would have to include a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Any negotiation has its limits, added Senator Kerry, and we know for the Palestinians that control of Al-Aqsa mosque and the establishment of some kind of capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not negotiable," the cable stated, summarizing the meeting with the emir. "For the Israelis, the Senator continued, Israel's character as a Jewish state is not open for negotiation. The non-militarization of an eventual Palestinian state and its borders can nonetheless be resolved through negotiation."
In a separate meeting the day before with the prime minister, Kerry resisted the Qatari leader's assertion that Hamas was ready to accept the existence of the State of Israel, but he agreed that urgent action was needed to rebuild Gaza.
According to the leaked diplomatic cable, the prime minister told Kerry, "We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza… Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ [Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani] was preaching to the converted and told the PM he was ‘shocked by what I saw in Gaza.'"
In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government.
"The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100," the cable said.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
The new WikiLeaks documents show that Iran has been hunting for missile technology all over the world, seeking to buy gyroscopes, jet vanes and metals, and perhaps whole missiles from North Korea. But Iran also has experienced great difficulty building longer range missiles. Why? Some clues can be found in one of the most interesting documents just released, a briefing that Russian officials gave their American counterparts on Iran's progress, or lack of it.
A summary of the Dec. 22, 2009 meeting was marked "secret" but tumbled out on Sunday in the reams of memos released by WikiLeaks and major news organizations. Fourteen Russian and 15 U.S. government officials compared notes that day about missile threats from Iran and North Korea.
Judging by the summary, it was a lively back and forth, during which the Russians claimed the threat from Iran's missiles is not as great as some have predicted in the United States. The size and nature of the threat is important because it undergirds the U.S. plans for a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defense system.
The Russians were prepared to talk "seriously" with the U.S. group, the summary says. Their message was Iran is struggling to lengthen the range of missiles that could carry heavy loads, such as a one-ton nuclear warhead, that might threaten the region or beyond. The Russians said their basic conclusion is that "Iran's ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward developing combat ready missiles to address regional concerns," not targets like the United States.
This was also the assessment made in May by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the December meeting, there was a sharp disagreement about the U.S. claim that North Korea sold to Iran a batch of 19 missiles, known as the BM-25. The transfer was first reported publicly in 2006; the BM-25 missile is supposedly based on a Soviet naval ballistic missile design, the R-27, known in the West as the SS-N-6. This missile was first developed in the 1960s and later modernized; it was in service in the Soviet Union until 1988. Iran has not tested any of the missiles it imported. The U.S. officials speculated that Iran may have purchased it to reverse-engineer the technology (although North Korea has been known to ship parts, expertise and manufacturing facilities as well as the missiles themselves.) The U.S. officials said photos of the Iranian space launch rocket, the Safir, show an engine which looks like the one on the R-27, as well as fuel tanks and welds that resemble it. The U.S. officials said they had received "direct evidence" of the missile transfer from North Korea to Iran.
But the Russians strongly dismissed the BM-25 as a mirage, according to the summary. They said Iran would not have purchased an untested missile, and they doubted whether it even existed. "For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile," the summary says. "Russia does not think the BM-25 exists." They asked why North Korea would sell an untested missile; the Americans responded: for cash.
Both the Russians and Americans acknowledged the limitations of Iran's older, liquid-fueled missiles, based on the Soviet Scud and its modifications, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Shahab-3. Both sides also seemed to agree that the Safir is not a military threat because of the small size of the payload.
The key issue is Iran's pursuit of more modern and powerful solid-fuel missiles that could hit medium-range targets, such as those in the Middle East or Europe. Iran has been working on such a missile, called the Sajjil-2, which it has flight tested. (See my earlier post about it.) In the meeting, U.S. officials were more worried about this than the Russians, who said Iran continues to stumble with solid fuel technology. "In Russia's view, Iran appears to be having very serious problems with engine development," the summary says. U.S. officials countered that Iran has a decade of experience with short-range missiles using solid fuel, importing equipment from China, and could now extend it to larger missiles.
The Russians said Iran was a long way from building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States. "Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum," the summary says. "Iran can build prototypes, but in order to be a threat to the U.S. or Russia, Iran needs to produce missiles in mass quantities, and it lacks materials sufficient for the type of mass production needed to be a security threat. Russia further noted that the technology for longer-range missiles is sophisticated and difficult to master."
At another point, the Russians said they think the North Koreans are working on a new, 100-ton capacity rocket engine using older technology, clustering the motors or stacking them. But Russia said the technology hasn't been actually spotted.
AFP/Getty Images; from Iran's ISNA agency, the two-stage solid-fuel missile, Dec. 16, 2009