Last Sunday, WikiLeaks began releasing its latest trove of US classified diplomatic communiqués, that generated a political earthquake for the Americans and their ‘friends’ and ‘foes’. This article will be confined to the case of the Middle East especially with respect to Iran’s nuclear issue (which the documents shed abundant light on), and the way it was covered in the mainstream media in the West and the Middle East. I will argue that what WikiLeaks is doing compensates to an unprecedented degree (in terms of injecting political transparency into the system) for the lameness of the mass media, but the mass media coverage of the release is bringing much of the opacity right back into that transparency, muddling the picture yet again by cherry-picking and focusing only on those documents that fit their narrative about Iran and the Middle East. By mass-media, I am not only referring to conservative partisan media (such as Fox News or Figaro) that have an explicit agenda of manipulation, but also (and more importantly) to the so-called ‘independent’ media such as New York Times, Spiegel, Le Monde, BBC, CNN, and many other Western and Middle-Eastern (especially Al Jazeera) news outlets that are operating cravenly in line with the agendas of their governments and manipulating their audiences under the guise of ‘independence’, especially with it comes to foreign relations.
The mass media here in the West cherry-picked and produced a huge pile of hooey regarding those cables about the Arab regimes’ perceived threats of the Iranian nuclear ambitions and their urging of the US to attack Iran preemptively. Some sound-bites that they brought to limelight are as follows: one cable tells us that the Saudi King ‘implored’ [mind the word] Washington to ‘cut off the head of the snake’, that is, to attack Iran before it’s too late. Another document tells us that the Bahraini King told Gen. Patraeus, then the top US commander in the region, that the US should stop Iran’s nuclear program ‘by whatever means necessary’, i.e. militarily. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi told the U.S. that he believed that Ahmadinejad was ‘going to take us to war’ and that ‘Ahmadinejad is Hitler’. In 2005, he had told Americans that they needed to take action ‘this year or next.’ And so forth and so on. The so-called ‘independent’ media dedicated their headlines solely to these highlights, and largely ignored or mentioned only en passant those documents that go against this narrative, consciously trying to manipulate their audiences into believing there is little or nothing against their simple good/evil narrative! Israeli officials and obviously their media (1) embraced these highlights, hoping to convince the world that they are not alone in fearing the ‘the new Hitler’.
Now, let’s approach the issue from two different perspectives: first, a realist political scientist’s standpoint. Well, the realist and neo-realist approaches in political sciences (crudely defined) tell us that the interstate relations (i.e. world politics) constitute a ‘state of anarchy’ (a ‘jungle’) with no really effective moral principles or legal systems regulating the behavior of the actors (states). From this outlook, it is completely normal for states and their media to lie and manipulate people and go to wars (just or unjust) with nothing but acquisition of ‘power’ and ‘self-interest’ regulating their policies. For starters, I should add that this is the standpoint of the majority of those in politics all around the world: ‘left’, right, ‘democratic’ and dictatorial alike. From this viewpoint, it is much more reasonable to engage with Iran than to attack it, as I showed in a previous article in TehranReview (2), and as many realist political scientists and politicians have already argued (3). Even from this amoral realistic perspective and even in cables that WikiLeaks released you can see this realist approach given voice to by many of those in power. Many a political analyst (e.g. Robert Dreyfus and Gareth Porter (4) ) has also made arguments for the necessity of engaging with Iran.
Let’s check some marginalized new items: a 2007 document of the then-British ambassador in Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, recommended ‘being steady and firm, tough but not aggressive, and at the same time, seeking to engage’ with Iran. Even the officials in the foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia (who rarely dare to oppose their King’s opinions) called for ‘more severe sanctions’ as a more reasonable and realistic way of dealing with Iran. Another cable shows Oman’s ‘preference for a non-military solution’. Some documents relating to UAE say that although they regard Iran as a threat to their national security, ‘they are reluctant to take actions that could provoke their neighbor’ (Iran), and ‘compromise their extensive trading relationship’ with Iran. As you can see, even in UAE and Saudi Arabia, there are top official voices opposed to war or consequences of war for realistic reasons. Another document concerns the Egyptian Mubarak advising American officials to talk to Iran as long as ‘you don’t believe a word they say’. Yet, he does not advocate war. Another cable tells that the Qatari prime minister said ‘we lie to them [Iranians] and they lie to us,’ which basically means they are both realists and maybe you should be realists too. The logical challenge in this scenario for us and Americans is to decide whether or not they are lying in this statement too – the famous logical ‘liar paradox’.
One aspect of the story the mass media rarely mention is the fact that among all Middle Eastern governments only four of them (Saudis, Bahrain, Jordan, UAE) somehow urged Washington to attack Iran and not the rest of the Arab or non-Arab countries in the region (with the obvious exception of Israel). Even in these four countries there are top officials opposing war. These facts show, as Dreyfus argues, that Arab dictators are worried about Iran but ‘uncertain at best about what action to take, precisely because they fear instability and war’, which could lead to the collapse of their shaky and unpopular regimes. Other countries either oppose war, advocating diplomacy, or align themselves with Iran (again except Israel). Another document said: ‘Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like al Qaeda’. This outstandingly important news item that should have shaken the foundation of the Western/Saudi relations was covered only in one line in the middle of an article in NYTimes (5), and that was that. No further elaboration, no impact. Another point worth mentioning is the fact that despite the purchase of hundreds and hundreds of billions of sophisticated weaponry from the US and other suppliers, the Arab governments feel so intimidated by Iran that they have to beg and ‘implore’ the US (only privately) to stop Iran. They do not even dare to make their position public, even while aligning themselves with the US and Israel. It is ‘sad, shocking, even pitiful’, according to Rami George Khouri (6), to see such miserable behavior from Arab governments.
The second perspective that I would like to take is the ‘naïve’ standpoint of a citizen of the world who, following Abraham Lincoln, ‘naively’ believes that ‘democracy is the government of the people, for the people, and by the people’. So, let us take a look at Arab governments and their peoples. The three muddled cases of Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq aside, all other Arab countries are ruled by petty dictators: either dictatorial kings or life-time presidents (read potentates) untrammeled by any functioning parliaments or judiciaries and the possibility of people democratically deciding to remove them from power. The Western mass media portray these governments as representing the peoples of the region and use expressions such as ‘Arab contempt’, ‘Arab concerns’, or ‘Arab fears’; but in point of fact, they are talking about Arab dictators’ fears, in countries with more political and religious extremism and corruption than imaginable in Iran. In some of them, women are not allowed to vote, or get any political or managerial positions or even drive a car. There is no freedom of press in these countries just like Iran and even worse; take a look at how they have covered the recent WikiLeaks spate of documents, and you see nothing. Even Al Jazeera, the so-called ‘independent’ Middle Eastern media organization, has completely buried its head in the sand because of the pressure from Arab regimes and has not said a word about WikiLeaks revelations. In case that’s not enough proof, let me acquaint you with an academic research as to what Arab concerns really are, supposing (still ‘naively’) that democracy is about people not dictators.
A 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll (7) , conducted by the University of Maryland, covering Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and UAE (mind the fact that all of these governments are ‘friends’ of the US and Israel), shows that that 88% of people in these countries (almost 9 out of every 10 Arabs) consider Israel to be threat number 1 to the region, 77% of people consider the US to be threat number 2, while in general only 10% mention Iran as a threat. One key finding of the poll is that ‘a majority of the Arab public now see a nuclear-armed Iran as being better for the Middle East’. The reason for this fact is not that Arabs are apocalyptic people, or they think nuclear weapons are naturally good, but that from the daily sufferings they incur, even average people have turned into political realists, bad political realists: they have come to think that when the two biggest threats to their region (that effectively introduce death and suffering to their lives on a daily basis) have nuclear weapons, it would not be a bad thing if Iran could stop or reduce this daily dose of misery should it come to acquire nuclear weapons. Now, this is realism, but it is really bad realism. They don’t know that Iran, a regime merciless even to its own people, will add its own daily dose of death and agony in the neighborhood if it gets to become a regional superpower with nuclear capabilities, which, like it or not, it is in the process of becoming. Be that as it may, the fact is Iran is not perceived as a threat by the people of the region.
To do justice to the issues raised by WikiLeaks is beyond the scope of this article, but the preceding has hopefully shown that the situation is not as black and white as the good/evil scenarios in the Western and Middle-Eastern media have it. If there were any scenario at all, it would be an all-evil scenario. But the presence of people like Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, should give us pause and hope for the future of world politics. The documents depict the profound level of duplicity and deception that is rampant in undemocratic practices of both Western and (Middle) Eastern countries. It is no wonder that China has filtered the website and Iran has rejected all the documents as fabrications and Arab regimes have censored all the news about it. Nor is it a wonder that some congressmen and Fox News in the US are trying to declare WikiLeaks a ‘terrorist organization’, (8) in the same way they declared Nelson Mandela and his party (ANC) ‘a terrorist organization’ decades ago. But at the end of the day, it was Mandela and his people who prevailed.
(1) See Jerusalem Post on this issue: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=197319
(2) How/Should/Will Israel Attack Iran? http://tehranreview.net/articles/5326
(3) Including Brzezinski, and many Obama officials such as Kaplan
(4) For Porter’s views visit: http://www.therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=5935
(5) See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/world/29cables.html
(6) R. G. Khouri: The internationally syndicated American-Palestinian columnist. See The Sad Loss of National Dignity http://www.agenceglobal.com/article.asp?id=2457
(7) For the full report, visit: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/reports/2010/08_arab_opinion_poll_telhami/08_arab_opinion_poll_telhami.pdf
(8) See http://theweek.com/article/index/209848/is-wikileaks-a-terrorist-group