PALO ALTO — Arabs and Persians have been at each other's throats for as long as records have been kept. But earlier this year, they made a stab at reconciliation. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well.
The two sides arranged so-called “solidarity games,” something like a regional Olympics. The idea was to encourage Islamic comity. But this unity began to fall apart months ahead of time, when the Arab states learned that Iran had inscribed “Persian Gulf” on all of the tournament’s logos and medals.
For 50 years, the Arab states have argued, to little effect, that the body of water is actually the Arabian Gulf. Still, Iran was deliberately rubbing this dispute in their faces. Not long after, Iranian air traffic controllers began insisting that civilian aircraft flying to Iran from the Arab world use "Persian Gulf" in plane-to-tower communications. Right after that, the Arab states abruptly cancelled the games and the two sides returned to business as usual: hating each other.
By and large, however, both sides have been hiding their loathing, disguising it behind the flowery language Arab and Persian leaders customarily offer in public discourse. For the Arab states, this was particularly true when it came to their concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. From their point of view, they had an excellent reason.
Which countries, after all, offer the loudest complaints about Iran and its obvious drive for a bomb? Israel and the United States. Which Arab leader wants to stand up and proclaim agreement with Jerusalem and Washington? In their world, wouldn’t that be tantamount to political suicide?
But now the Wikileaks disclosures have outed these Arab leaders. Yes, in fact, they fully agree with both Jerusalem and Washington. The leaked cables show that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly beseeched visiting American officials to “cut off the head of the snake!” King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain declared: “That program must be stopped.” He was, of course, referring to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.”
The king is probably blushing right now. Just a few months ago, the ambassador to Washington from the United Arab Emirates (Bahrain’s neighbor and ally) openly declared his fervent agreement with the idea that the United States, or Israel, should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Absolutely,” said the ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba. “There will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country.” But “if you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?’ my answer is still the same: We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. I am willing to absorb what takes place.”
Obviously the ambassador spoke the truth. But that didn’t matter. Almost immediately his country’s foreign minister asserted that his remarks were taken out of context, reported inaccurately. That was unconvincing then, and now we can see that the ambassador’s remarks were a perfect reflection of his state’s actual view.
Why does the Arab world so distrust, or fear, Iran? After all, if Iran does finally build a nuclear weapon, it seems quite unlikely that the Arab states would be a target. But if there’s a nuclear accident, the fallout would sweep over the Gulf states. Iran’s nuclear facilities are far closer to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states than to Tehran. What’s more, a large conflict would likely restrict the movement of oil tankers through the Persian Gulf.
But the Arab states see a larger problem. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president vocalized it: “The Persians,” he once declared “are trying to devour the Arab states.” Egypt had long been considered the region’s leading state. Now that distinction seems to be shifting to Saudi Arabia. But if Iran became a nuclear power, the Arab leaders fear that the state’s bravado and swagger would give them tacit domain over that part of the world.
Iran has been trying to dismiss those fears. Last summer President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered his own bumbling attempt at reassurance. “Are they so afraid of two bombs?” he asked. The United States was estimating that Iran may once have had enough enriched nuclear fuel for two bombs. “There are 20,000 bombs stockpiled” in other countries, “and they are so afraid of the possibility of the existence of two bombs? This is really amazing.”
Obviously that reassured no one. So this time, after reading the WikiLeaks material, Iran’s foreign ministry called the disclosures a “suspicious plot” and urged the Arab states not to fall into this “trap.”
Unfortunately for Tehran, that trap has already snapped shut. It caught Iran.