One of the diplomatic world’s biggest open secrets is that Arab leaders desperately want the United States to put an end to Iran’s nuclear program—by force, if necessary. The persistence with which they have been making this case to American policymakers, however, has been matched by a studied determination to hide their campaign from public view. Given the virulent anti-Americanism so prevalent in the Arab world, it’s understandable that Arab leaders would not want their peoples to know that they’re cheerleading for Washington to attack yet another Muslim country. But on very rare occasions the veil has slipped, as was the case last July, for instance, when the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, told an Aspen Ideas Festival audience that the benefits of bombing Iran outweighed the costs of allowing it to acquire a nuclear capability. “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,” he said. “I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE.”
The full weight of these hidden desires finally came out into the open with the recent WikiLeaks release of thousands of American diplomatic cables. “Iraq was unnecessary,” the sometime Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri told American officials in 2006. “Iran is necessary.” Elite Sunni Arab sentiment was most clearly expressed by that most elite of Sunni Arabs, the King of Saudi Arabia, who has apparently been imploring the United States to “cut off the head of the snake,” the serpentine figure in this gory analogy being the regime in Tehran.
But while Julian Assange made sure that the world got the message, however embarrassing it might have been in certain Middle Eastern capitals, the realist-progressive alliance in the US wasn’t listening. For years it has argued that the Iranian nuclear threat has been exaggerated by the government of Israel and its “neoconservative” supporters in the United States. While the WikiLeaks revelations demonstrate that increasing Iranian hegemony has clearly alarmed Arab regimes, however, this hasn’t fazed self-professed realists a bit. It is hypocritical, they say, for those who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (and who made the promotion of democracy throughout the Middle East a crucial part of the case for his ouster) to now trumpet the words of Arab dictators. Furthermore, they argue, the “Arab street” overwhelmingly opposes Western military action, so the news of anti-Iranian gossip among the Sunni elites is irrelevant.
Michael Brendan Dougherty of the American Conservative says that the cables “confirm that America’s democracy agenda is over” and accuses hawks of “warming up to the same leaders they formerly labeled feckless and untrustworthy.” Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy , writes, “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.” Ideological shapeshifter Andrew Sullivan says of those who quote the Saudi prince, “Here they are, celebrating and citing the dictator of the country that actually gave us those 19 9/11 hijackers, and urging that we take his advice, and provide cover for him, in risking World War III.” (Actually, fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but no need to let facts get in the way of a good meme.)
Many American left-realists have taken to citing a Zogby poll conducted last summer which found that seventy-seven percent of people in six Arab countries believe that “Iran has the right to its nuclear program” and that fifty-seven percent think that Iranian nukes will have a “positive” impact on the region. It should come as no surprise that Arab public opinion—nourished by a steady diet of lies, anti-Western paranoia, and self-serving propaganda by government-controlled media on a whole host of issues, not the least of which is Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons—is utterly irrational and at odds with the thinking of the legitimately worried elites. In voicing such opinions, the “Arab street” is expressing a misplaced sense of Muslim solidarity and anti-Western grievance. Why should they be expected to understand that an Iranian nuclear program would not only destabilize the region and throw the world oil market into a tailspin but serve a deathblow to the citizens of Iran, whose democratic aspirations would be killed by an emboldened, nuclear-equipped regime? Do the American commentators who enthusiastically cite Arab acceptance of Iranian nukes agree with their sentiment, which is nothing short of absurd? And, more importantly for the urgent ongoing debate about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, should American foreign policy be determined by the views of poorly educated foreigners who live in closed societies where ideas are rigorously censored?
When the Zogby poll asked Arabs to name the two countries that most threatened them, eighty-eight percent said Israel, seventy-seven said the United States, and just ten percent said Iran. Under no circumstances can an Arab in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia legitimately claim to be “threatened” by Israel or America, which, unlike Iran, have not claimed their territory as a lost Persian province (in the case of Bahrain) or provided support to anti-government terrorist organizations (as Iran has done in Saudi Arabia). Such views are informed by the opportunistic agendas of the Arab regimes, which publicly obsess about supposed Western perfidy to create a scapegoat that will deflect anger away from their own corruption and abuses of power. It is ironic, given their privately expressed worries about Iran, that the Arab regimes’ decades-long campaign against Israel and America should finally come back to haunt them now that they understand the threat posed by Iranian nukes.
The “Arab street,” shrouded in ignorance as few other global publics are, harbors views on a whole array of issues which should disgust American progressives who now gleefully cherry-pick international polling data to find support for their positions. Do they believe that the West should let the “Arab street” dictate our policies on gay rights or female emancipation, in addition to our foreign policy? Do they think there is anything rational or defensible in the fact that, according to a Brookings Institution poll conducted earlier this year, only three percent of Arabs “empathize with the Jews who suffered under the Nazis”?
As to the supposed hypocrisy of citing autocratic Arab leaders’ fears on Iran while also supporting democratization in the Middle East, there is nothing contradictory in noting their legitimate alarm about Tehran while also supporting the political liberalization that might one day bring about the end of their rule. The United States can share selected strategic goals with nations with which it shares very few, if any, values. To cite autocratic Arab enmity toward Iran no more confers legitimacy on these regimes than citing Chinese and Russian concerns about maritime piracy, for instance, contradicts American support for liberal democrats working to reform these countries’ authoritarian power structures.
The smoke screens sent up by the left-realists on Arab leaders’ fears of Iran also betray a more fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of America’s role in the world. A condition of superpower status is the accumulation of “client states,” smaller, less powerful nations that depend upon a greater power. As the world’s sole superpower, America can claim more client states than any other country. Some of these relationships are widely viewed as benign and are supported across the aisle, like American commitment to a democratic and independent, if not technically sovereign, Taiwan. While initially a relic of Cold War–era support for “Free China,” Washington’s security guarantee to Taiwan is now rightly viewed as something much more significant: a symbol of American support for democracy in Asia. Around the world, allies and adversaries closely monitor the Washington-Taipei relationship for the implications it might have for their own dealings with the US. Some of America’s most important client state relationships, and its most morally vexing ones, are with Arab states in the Gulf region, dictated as these ties are by a cold moral calculus that sees human rights subsumed to the economic necessity of protecting the free flow of oil.
One can see the tension that has long existed between concern for human rights in this region and the defense of vital national interests even in the administration of Jimmy Carter, who entered the White House announcing that human rights would be a priority and left office articulating the “Carter Doctrine,” which mandated that the United States would use military force to protect its interests and allies in the Persian Gulf. Hawks, who in the wake of 9/11 faulted the democratic deficits in so many Arab countries as being largely responsible for breeding Islamist terrorism, do not—merely by dint of their criticism of these regimes—delegitimize Arab potentates’ concern about Iran. As bad as Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record may be, Iran presents a greater and more immediate threat to American interests on an array of fronts ranging from its support for international terrorism to nuclear proliferation.
It’s strange that so many so-called “realists,” who claim to understand the nitty-gritty of foreign relations better than others, have forgotten a fundamental tenet of statecraft: if a nation has client states, it behooves it to take their concerns seriously. The question is not whether one likes the Saudi monarchy; no decent person does. It’s about whether one cares about the future of American power. Those who do care, and want to see it prosper, cannot dismiss Arab fears of rising Iranian hegemony as merely the attention-starved lament of power-hungry and socially regressive monarchs. For if the United States were to allow Iran to go nuclear, thus throwing the region’s power balance into flux and jeopardizing the world economy, America’s credibility as a great power would collapse. And that, far more than the ill-informed opinion of the “Arab street,” is what should concern Americans most.