It’s probably safe to assume that Australian Internet activist Julian Assange wasn’t thinking specifically about Iran when his brainchild, the information clearinghouse WikiLeaks, released its latest round of classified U.S. government cables. Still, the data dump, encompassing more than a quarter-million internal memos issued by the State Department and U.S. embassies overseas, successfully demolishes a number of sacred cows relating to American policy toward the Islamic republic and its burgeoning nuclear effort.
The first is that there is no consensus regarding conflict with Iran. By now, the idea of using force to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been derided so often in the mainstream media that it seems thoroughly discredited. But, as a slew of notes from America’s Middle Eastern missions confirm, not only are Iran’s regional neighbors increasingly nervous about the Islamic republic’s atomic effort, more and more are willing to support its elimination by any means necessary. The list includes the United Arab Emirates, the rulers of which have said that military action against Iran should be “taken this year or next year,” before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad precipitates a regional conflagration on his own. It also includes Saudi Arabia, whose king for years has urged the United States to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake.”
In fact, the only country that appears decisively to have taken the idea of force off the table is the United States. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently told the Wall Street Journal, the prevailing wisdom within the White House is that the military option is not an option at all. Or, in his words: “The only long-term solution in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest.” Needless to say, that sort of message from Washington, delivered at precisely the time when Iran’s neighbors are drifting in the opposite direction, is a surefire recipe for a decline in America’s regional standing.
The second myth is that America is safe from Iran. For years, conventional wisdom has held that Iran is a long way away from possessing the ability to strike beyond its immediate neighborhood. The Obama administration actually has staked its reputation on it; the White House’s reboot of George W. Bush-era missile-defense plans, announced publicly in September 2009, eschews defense of the U.S. homeland in favor of the near-term deployment of sea-based and theater defenses abroad, based on the assumption that Iran’s long-range missile capabilities won’t materialize until substantially later this decade.
The internal governmental memorandums released by WikiLeaks, however, suggest that such a missile threat from Iran might take shape considerably sooner than that. Among them is a February dispatch, vetted by the New York Times, that reveals that Iran managed to acquire no fewer than 19 advanced Russian-designed missiles from North Korea - and that as a result, Iran has the ability to target capitals in Western Europe. Moreover, informed observers warn, these missile acquisitions may end up accelerating Iran’s development of a truly intercontinental ballistic missile capability. In other words, when it comes to protecting the American people from ballistic-missile attack, the Obama administration’s current missile-defense plan runs a real risk of being a day late and a dollar short.
Then there’s Iran’s interference in Iraq. The documents disseminated by WikiLeaks paint a damning picture of the elaborate political and paramilitary infrastructure that Iran has built on the territory of its western neighbor since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. That activism has come at a concrete cost; this summer, U.S. envoy to Iraq James F. Jeffrey publicly estimated that Iran was either directly or indirectly responsible for “up to a quarter” of American casualties there since the start of the second Iraq war. Iran, in other words, has been waging a clandestine war against the United States for years without Washington doing much in response.
The final fallacy is that Iran’s nuclear program can be treated as a stand-alone phenomenon. Since taking office, the Obama administration has consistently counseled patience on Iran, arguing that even if diplomatic engagement with Tehran’s rulers or economic sanctions against them should somehow fail, it will be possible for the United States to successfully deter and contain the Islamic republic. Implicit in that advice is the idea that Iran’s nuclear program can be dealt with in isolation and that the rise of an atomic Iran would not necessarily lead to a drastic alteration of the regional balance of power in its neighborhood.
In fact, as the internal communications disclosed by WikiLeaks make clear, even White House officials themselves aren’t convinced that this is the case. In fact, as Mr. Gates told his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, earlier this year, the Iranian bomb is a bellwether of sorts for regional proliferation writ large, and its ultimate status will determine how robustly other countries in Iran’s immediate neighborhood pursue their own strategic capabilities. It means that if Iran is allowed to cross the nuclear threshold, others in the Middle East invariably will follow suit. It also indicates that, if the United States is to have a prayer of preventing the emergence of multiple new nuclear states in the Middle East, its policy toward Iran needs to be forceful enough to deter not only the Iranians but everyone else contemplating a nuclear option as well. At the moment, it’s abundantly clear that the Obama administration’s approach isn’t even deterring the Iranians.
Since it sprang onto the international scene four years ago, WikiLeaks has been roundly condemned by officials and analysts alike as a scourge to national security. Perhaps it is, but at least as they pertain to Iran, the classified cables exposed by the group actually could end up playing a helpful role, providing a telling glimpse into what the current administration is doing wrong on Iran - and what Washington needs to do in order to get it right.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.