Nowhere were the WikiLeaks documents read with keener interest than in the Middle East—with Iranian and Arab leaders either irate or embarrassed.
Around the Middle East this week, the new WikiLeaks release sunk in like the morning after a wild party—a party where the host had blurted out in detail and at length just what he thought of every one of his guests.
Middle East governments angered or delighted to learn what the world thought of them, variously fumed or gloated as U.S. diplomats in the Muslim world apologized, clarified, and promised to do better.
And while the leaked cables covered many countries from Russia to North Korea, the leaked documents describing the region's worries about Iran's nuclear aspirations had the biggest immediate impact in the Middle East. According to the released cables, Bahrain’s ruler, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, at one point told the U.S. that Iran “must be stopped”—an Arab leader giving voice to a position long held by Israel. “The world thinks like us!” noted the headline on an Israeli op-ed with some relish.
Meanwhile, observers worried about the fallout—the damage done to trust between U.S. and Arab diplomats; to international efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions—even the damage done to the Iranian dissident movement, revealed by WikiLeaks to have been courted by the Israeli Mossad—a lethal accusation in the Arab world.
The impact of the latest WikiLeaks' release may go beyond mere embarrassment, said Charles Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national-security adviser.
“New and harmful” was how Freilich described the WikilLeaks revelation that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, consulted with Washington about working with Iran's students and ethnic minorities to topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime in Iran.
In the Muslim Middle East, even suspicions of alliance with Mossad can be fatal to the accused. The Mossad-Washington exchange would strengthen the Iranian government's claims that its critics are agents of Israel and the U.S., Freilich said, noting that this was “not good for the opposition.”
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Inside Iran, the revelations have sparked anger—and not all of it toward Israel or the United States. P.B., a human-rights activist in Tehran, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the revelations just highlighted Arab animosity toward Iran. The Gulf States “have their own problems,” she said. “The last thing that they want is the Shia brand of Islam being imported to their [Sunni Arab] country.”
“Some part of the American government produced these documents,” Ahmadinejad said.
But while there was anger and dismay, there was also hope that America would not make another mistake in the Middle East. “Am I afraid? No. I don’t think the U.S. administration and politicians are stupid enough to attack Iran at the urging of the Arabs,” P.B. added.
• Peter Beinart: Why the WikiLeaks Drama Is OverblownAhmadinejad, for his part, reacted angrily. “Some part of the American government produced these documents,” he said at a news conference Monday. “We don’t think this information was leaked. We think it was organized to be released on a regular basis and they are pursuing political goals.”
• Tunku Varadarajan: Fallout from WikiLeaks • 9 Most Shocking WikiLeaks SecretsIn October, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani responded to the first WikiLeaks document dumps by saying they showed the “U.S. is after adventure in the world.”
Hezbollah officials, accused in the WikiLeaks documents of illegally using ambulances and medical shipments to smuggle in arms from Iran, declined comment.
Other documents detailed allegations that Iran was funneling millions of dollars to its protégés in Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Monday called the WikiLeaks disclosures “damaging” and “ the timing terrible.”
Iran will likely take advantage of its Arab neighbors' discomfort over the releases, and push Arab countries to “distance themselves from the U.S.,'' Freilich said, adding that we should expect Arab diplomats “be more circumspect in their private communications with the U.S."—pushing for guarantees in advance, for example, that U.S. diplomats classify all exchanges top-secret, to forestall more WikiLeaks embarrassment.
The new WikiLeaks diplomatic cables, published by The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian, also contained ample embarrassment for other foreign governments and leaders.
Unlike past WikiLeaks document dumps, which released documents from the U.S. military about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sunday's WikiLeaks released a quarter-million diplomatic notes sent by U.S. State Department employees and others around the world.
Pakistan, whose reputation as an undependable ally was underscored by the WikiLeaks documents, condemned the "irresponsible disclosure," prompting U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter to take to the editorial pages of a Pakistani newspaper to condemn the spill of state secrets, saying that the United States “deeply regrets” it.
Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh—leader of a conservative Islamic Arab nation—was depicted chuckling about his willingness to tolerate smuggling into Yemen if it brought in really “good whiskey.” A Saleh deputy in the same meeting laughed about lying to Yemen's parliament—falsely telling lawmakers that air strikes on al Qaeda were launched by Yemen rather than the United States.
Josh Shahryar contributed to this report.
Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.