The release of some US State Department cables by WikiLeaks concerning US-Iran relations has made sensational headlines in the news media. Yet, to those who follow these relations closely, there is hardly anything that is new in these cables. Consider three revelations that have appeared in major newspapers:
Revelation 1): The Obama Administration was not sincere when it advocated engagement with Iran. At the same time that the administration was publicly talking about engagement, it was privately pursuing harsh sanctions against Iran. In other words, from the very beginning the Obama Administration essentially continued the “carrots and sticks” policy of the Bush Administration. This revelation appeared in many newspapers. For example, on November 30, 2010, the Christian Science Monitor wrote: “WikiLeaks revelations that American officials were planning to raise pressure on Iran with more sanctions and a missile defense shield?even while President Obama was making high-profile public overtures to Iran?are being seen in Tehran as validation of deep skepticism from the start about Obama’s effort.” The same source also adds: “Iranians and analysts alike say the leaked diplomatic cables show a half-hearted attempt at engagement in which the US administration’s ‘dual track’ policy, of simultaneously applying pressure and negotiating, was undermined by a singular focus on the pressure track and a growing assumption that engaging Iran was pointless.”
The report states that American officials expected the “engagement” to fail. It quotes Gary Sick, “an Iran expert at Columbia University,” and a former member of the US National Security Council under Presidents Ford and Carter, as saying: “The US undertook its engagement strategy with Iran with the clear conviction that it would fail [while] preparing (and disseminating in private) an alternative pressure strategy. This is the most serious indictment of all.”
It is astonishing that it has taken until now for some major newspapers, as well as some Iran “experts,” to find out about the discrepancy between what the Obama Administration has been saying and what it has been doing. Even before the 2008 presidential election, this author predicted that if Barack Obama was elected president, there will be no major change in the Bush Administration’s policy of “carrots and sticks,” and that a period of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy” will appear before hostilities begin. The prediction was based on examining the writings of Obama’s advisors on Iran. In particular, I argued that in the case of Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency, Dennis Ross, the former director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy?which is a think-tank affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee?will be the main policy maker. After the election, in a number of essays, such as “The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop: Dennis Ross and Iran” and “The Fourth Round of Sanctions on Iran: The End of ‘Tough Diplomacy’?,” I further analyzed Ross’s policy of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy.” I argued that the aim of this policy was, from the very beginning, to go through “a series of motions intended to create the illusion of engaging Iran, with the intention of gaining international support for aggressive actions against Iran.” How could the media have missed all such facts that were readily available? Worse yet, how could some Iran “experts” have missed them?
Revelation 2): The Obama Administration had offered Russia a quid pro quo: in exchange for the US not deploying missiles in Eastern Europe, Russia would support the fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran. This revelation also appeared in a number of major newspapers. For example, on November 28, 2010, David E. Sanger?who, in the case of Iran, does the same thing that Judith Miller used to do when it came to Iraq?and his colleagues in The New York Times wrote: The Obama “administration maneuvered to win Russian support for sanctions. It killed a Bush-era plan for a missile defense site in Poland?which Moscow’s leaders feared was directed at them, not Tehran?and replaced it with one floating closer to Iran’s coast. While the cables leave unclear whether there was an explicit quid pro quo, the move seems to have paid off.”
Actually, there was an explicit quid pro quo, as I will show in a sequel to my earlier book, The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment. But for the time being, it is sufficient to say that in a June 10, 2010 essay, “The Fourth Round of Sanctions on Iran: The End of ‘Tough Diplomacy’?,” I actually referred to this quid pro quo. I even pinpointed the date when this tit for tat was first proposed: “In the July 2009 G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, Obama, accompanied by Michael McFaul, the neoconservative Hoover Institute ‘expert’ on Russia and Iran, offered the Russians a quid pro quo: in exchange for a deal on the expiring 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and postponing the US deployment of anti-missile system in Europe, Russia would agree to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. In September of 2009 the Obama Administration sweetened the deal by promising to drop the deployment of anti-missile system in Europe altogether. As far as the fourth UNSC sanction resolution was concerned, the fate of Iran was nearly sealed.” I based my contention not on any secret documents, but on a series of reports that were made available by such sources as AP, AFP, Reuters and UPI. These same sources were available to the popular news media, such as The New York Times. The fact that the documents leaked by WikiLeaks appear as revelations to certain news media shows how shallow, if not purely ideological, their reporting is.
Revelation 3): The US allies in the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, were worried about Iran’s nuclear program and were offering oil to China, if China agreed to support the fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran. Again, this news appears in a number of major newspapers as a revelation, including the above mentioned report by David Sanger and his colleagues in The New York Times. They write: “There is also an American-inspired plan to get the Saudis to offer China a steady oil supply, to wean it from energy dependence on Iran. The Saudis agreed, and insisted on ironclad commitments from Beijing to join in sanctions against Tehran. . . Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action?by someone else.”
Once more, it is hard to believe that reporters who regularly write about Iran, such as David Sanger, did not know what was going on between the US and its client states in the Persian Gulf as far as Iran was concerned. Actually, on April 12, 2010, the same David Sanger, along with a colleague, wrote in The New York Times: “the Obama administration, in hopes of winning over Beijing, has sought support from other oil producers to reassure China of its oil supply. Last year, it dispatched a senior White House adviser on Iran, Dennis B. Ross, to Saudi Arabia to seek a guarantee that it would help supply China’s needs, in the event of an Iranian cutoff.”
This trip was, indeed, very much in accord with Dennis Ross’s own policy of “tough diplomacy.” According to this policy, the US would exert pressure on its client states in the Persian Gulf so that they would distance themselves from Iran and get behind Israel. Before becoming president, Barak Obama stated this policy in a speech delivered at the 2007 AIPAC conference (the speech was actually written by Dennis Ross, James B. Steinberg, who is currently the Deputy Secretary of State, and former American Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer). Obama stated: We have “to persuade other nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to recognize common interests with Israel in dealing with Iran.” Once Obama became president, this policy was enforced vigorously.
Beside Dennis Ross, many other members of the Obama Administration have been traveling regularly to the Persian Gulf region to tell the client states to get in line behind the US-Israeli policy of containing Iran. For example, as I pointed out in my June 10, 2010 essay, Jeffery Bader, a colleague of Dennis Ross, accompanied him in his trip to Saudi Arabia on November 26, 2009 (The Washington Post). Actually, Secretary of State Clinton made at least one trip to the Persian Gulf Arab states to persuade them to guarantee exporting oil to China in exchange for the Chinese vote in support of the fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran. On February 14, 2009, AFP reported: “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to the Gulf on Sunday to seek oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s help in pressing China to join the US drive for sanctions against Iran.” One of her aids, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, was quoted as saying: “Saudi Arabia has an important trading relationship with China already. . . We would expect them (the Saudis) to use these visits [by various US officials], to use their relationship in ways that can help increase the pressure that Iran feels.”
The pressure tactics succeeded and, as this author observed in the above mentioned essay, after many direct trips to China by the likes of Dennis Ross, Jeffrey Bader, James Steinberg, and even Obama himself, China agreed to go along with the fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran. How could such information that has been reported by many news sources, including The New York Times itself, be viewed as revelations?
When it comes to Iran, the US State Department cables, released by WikiLeaks, are important in so far as they confirm what we already know. They are also tantalizing if one likes gossip or is interested in the “he said/she said” aspect of these cables. But, as far as substance is concerned, there is hardly anything in these documents that one can consider to be a revelation. Much of what appears in the news media as sensational stories concerning US-Iran relations, presumably revealed by WikiLeaks, were readily available online through major electronic news sources. It is in the nature of corporate news media to make a mountain out of a molehill, to make sensational what is old news. The more sensational the news, the more profit they can make.
SASAN FAYAZMANESH (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment (Routledge, 2008).