RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) - The disclosure in leaked U.S. cables that Gulf Arab leaders want Washington to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme exposes long-hidden views that will kill any chance of detente with Tehran.
From Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, to tiny Bahrain, Gulf Arab rulers revealed a reality they had spent years trying to hide publicly.
The views in the cables released by the WikiLeaks website contrast with the public stance of those Sunni rulers whose statements on their religious rivals in Shi‘ite Iran and its nuclear programme have until now been far more conciliatory.
The revelations, however, do confirm the depth of suspicion and hatred of the Shi‘ites among Sunni Arab leaders, especially in Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power and which regards Iran as an existential threat.
That concern was intensified by the rise of the Shi‘ites in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 -- the first time the Shi‘ites have controlled an Arab heartland country for nearly a millennium.
For Sunni Gulf rulers, seeing Iraq fall under Shi‘ite influence was shocking enough, but the fear of a nuclear Iran is something they find even more alarming.
According to the leaked cables, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah repeatedly exhorted the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme. He has never publicly called on Washington to use force against Iran.
The Bahraini king also said Iran’s nuclear programme should be halted by any means, and the crown prince of the emirate of Abu Dhabi saw “the logic of war dominating” when it comes to dealing with the Iranian threat.
“I think it confirms that the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states are all more united on the anti-Iranian front than previously disclosed,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based analyst.
Saudi analyst Khaled al-Dakhil said the cables were a reminder of the deep mistrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf Arab states.
“I don’t think Iran takes at face value public declarations coming from the Gulf, whether for a war or not -- just as Gulf leaders do not believe declarations about how peaceful the Iranian nuclear programme is,” he said.
The leaks show the extent of the worry that Iran’s nuclear programme is causing in the region.
“Iran should take note of the distress that its nuclear programme is causing in the region -- this is not something that should be ignored,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
Iran denies its nuclear programme is a cover to build a nuclear bomb and says it is purely for peaceful purposes.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday appeared to play down the impact the WikiLeaks disclosures, saying they would not hurt Tehran’s relations with its Gulf neighbors.
The United States has repeatedly said the military option to halt the Iranian nuclear programme is on the table, but U.S. military chiefs have also made clear it is a last resort, fearing it could ignite wider conflict in the Middle East.
“These revelations show that the Gulf Arab region is concentrating on Iran to the level that we want a war with Iran,” said Sami AlFaraj, head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
Analysts say the Gulf rulers’ desire for military action against Iran could add to wider Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions and undermine Saudi Arabia’s efforts to mediate with Iran to ease sectarian tensions in Iraq and Lebanon.
“It depends how people receive this. If they play it up and manipulate it, in terms of Sunni-Shi‘ite relations it could find some fertile ground,” Shaikh said.
“But in terms of policy I don’t think it’s going to have great impact -- they are dominated by other interests,” he added, echoing comments by Dakhil who saw limited implications.
Animosity between Sunnis and Shi‘ite goes back to a centuries-old religious schism that still poisons relations.
Hardline Sunnis regard Shi‘ites as “rejectionists” who strayed from true Islam. Until recently Gulf states banned Shi‘ites from performing religious rituals in public. In some countries they are denied government and security jobs.
No Gulf Arab government has commented on the Gulf leaks, which had on Monday not been widely covered by local media.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Giles Elgood