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WikiLeaks, Iran, and Obama

It’s hardly news that Tehran is up to no good.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The latest dump of classified WikiLeaks documents shows a few important facts: (1) The United States military unavoidably classifies a mountain of documents because of the easy loquacity of modern computerized warfare; (2) the release of these documents provides no startling revelations—anyone who’d read the liberal Iraqi émigré Kanan Makiya’s writings in the 1980s and 1990s knew the savage potential for internecine conflict in Iraq; former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his “light-footprint” generals Tommy Franks and John Abizaid were derelict in their duty to preserve order after Saddam Hussein’s fall; and (3) the Iranians have been wicked in Mesopotamia. 

WikiLeaks, Iran, and Obama

A U.S. tank burns in Iraq: Iran was a supplier of anti-armor projectiles.

AP / Hadi Mizban

This last point deserves further comment since it is of some importance in understanding how to approach the Islamic Republic today. The Democratic foreign policy establishment during George W. Bush’s presidency became enamored of the idea that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue was possible if only opposition from the White House could be overcome. That former Clinton administration officials—who had watched President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright apologize repeatedly for American and Western perfidy against Iran, and subsequently had witnessed the collapse of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist presidency—would think Barack Obama might succeed is testimony to both Obama’s charisma and the Democrats’ distaste for Bush. It’s also evidence of how impervious American foreign policy often is to the words and actions of foreigners: No matter how many times Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei expresses his disgust for America (“Satan incarnate,” “world-devourer,” “the enemy of Islam”), diplomats, academics, and think tankers remain convinced that the real, inner Khamenei is a pragmatist. 

The truth about President Bush: Until 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iran point-man Nicholas Burns seemed open to high-level discussions with Khamenei’s representatives, if only Iran’s über-theocrat would allow such talks. In particular, Burns appeared to believe that Iran, after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, wanted to deal with the United States. Like many foreign-policy cognoscenti, he thought Tehran desired direct negotiations, conceivably leading to the reestablishment of diplomatic ties. This openness to diplomacy may not have reflected President Bush’s soul, but it suggests greater ideological flexibility in the Bush White House vis-à-vis Iran than is often assumed. 

All flexibility evaporated in 2006, however, in part because, as we now see from the WikiLeaks cables, the information streaming out of Iraq about Iranian actions there was damning. Tehran was not only exporting lethal weaponry to Iraq, especially the deadly Explosively Formed Penetrator projectiles aimed at American and British armored vehicles and high-powered, high-caliber sniper rifles that could punch through concrete, but also training Iraqi assassination teams in Iran and Iraq. These teams regularly killed Shiite Iraqi officials, chosen either because they were critical of Iran or because, as the Wiki-Leaks documents imply, random killings of officials caused instability in the country. Inside Iraq, Qods Force officers were actually guiding militant Iraqi Shiite forces in their actions. It’s hard to know how many Americans Iranian-aided operations killed, but the number is surely in the hundreds. Simultaneously, the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, where Israel took on an Iranian-armed and trained Hezbollah, did nothing to engender warm feelings in Washington for Khamenei and his men. 

If the chronology of the Wiki-Leaks information, as reported by the New York Times, is correct, President Obama was extending an olive branch to Tehran while Iran continued its lethal activity in Iraq (and increased its nefarious involvement in Afghanistan). Again, this isn’t really news for those who’ve followed Iraq: Wiki-Leaks just provides some of the official paper flow that piles up from the field and is raw material for briefing memos for senior officials and occasionally even the President’s Daily Brief. Obama presumably extended his hand to Khamenei not because the president is slow to anger when aggrieved Third Worlders kill Americans, but because he saw Iranian activity in Iraq, deplorable as it was, as somehow extricable from Iranian foreign policy toward the United States. 

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