Wikileaks has proved to be the kingmaker of all news, defying the short lifespan of most news cycles to reign for a solid week-and-a-half over world headlines. Reactions over the release of secret US State Department cables ranged from shock, titillation, amusement, or apoplectic fury. The leaked missives sketch out US diplomats’ meetings with allies and enemies, executive imperatives from Hillary Clinton and Condi Rice, the subtle nuances of success and failure in foreign policy, and embarrassingly intimate vignettes of collaborators and “friends”. In short, the daily business of running an empire.
It is rather startling to see the extent to which this business involves the reforming, disciplining, and tabulating of Muslims. On Wikileaks’ handy chart listing the percentage of cables issued from US embassy complexes, Iraq topped the list, followed by Ankara, Turkey. But even from countries that seemingly have little to do with the world’s Muslim geography, US diplomatic reports obsess on the spectre of Iran and terrorists quarried in the War on Terror (WOT). “All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare would say, for the dark, bearded figure of the Muslim-haunting US imagination.
A case in point is the US embassy in Brazil, surely too far from Muslim population centers to figure largely in the WOT. But no, even in the land of Candomble and supermodels, US diplomats worry over how to press the Brazilian government to widen its terrorism laws, clamp down on Hizbullah fund raisers, and quarry suspects in the one million Brazilian Muslim population.
But of all concerns pursued by the State Department in its foreign relations, Iran is by far most acute. Interest in Iran tangles together thousands of cables, exposing a sleepless obsession on tabulating Iran’s political relations, domestic situation, international business operations, spheres of influence, and more. Iran has shaped into a monomania for US foreign policy, feeding thousands of executive-level directives into the circuits of empire.
An illustration: Hillary’s cable to the Embassy of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and its “Iran Watch” program, commending them on their observation and reporting of Iran’s 2009 elections. “Your second cable in particular identified the interesting trend that Mousavi was picking up votes from rural voters,” noted the missive. “Embassy reporting gave Washington recipients an important view of working class Iranians' views on the elections. This crucial information has helped NEA and key principals in deciphering the maze of Iranian electoral politics.”
According to the logic of statecraft, the US embassy in Turkmenistan should be devoted to managing political relations between the United States and Turkmenistan. Nevertheless, the cables show us how embassies in compliant states like the mineral rich Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries, become platforms for spying and destabilizing their neighbors.
As many reporters discussed, the Wikileaks cables reveal how tenuous the boundary is between a diplomatic outpost and a spying rig: embassies are outposts of the US intelligence network. The example par excellence is Hillary ordering her diplomats to gather biographical, biometric, and electronic information of top UN officials — eye-scans, thumbprints, credit card numbers, frequent flier accounts, sensitive passwords and encryptions and more. In short, take off the double-breasted jacket of a courtly diplomat, and you find Valerie Plame. And even in the UN cable-gate, Iran emerges as the ghostly subtext disturbing the quantum solace of the 007s . The UN’s attitude towards Iran was one of the chief preoccupations that Hillary wished for her diplomats to closely monitor.
In Iraq and Lebanon, the cables reveal that US diplomats are anxiously measuring the pulse of Iran’s influence. The US tends to view Hizbullah and Hamas as nefarious extensions of Iran, proxy-Iranian parties through which Iranian influence is being injected into Arab playing grounds. (Side note: the US unsuccessfully tried to lobby for renaming the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Gulf). Of course, this rather complicates the complex stacking of agency and alliance in these political relationships. But Israel and the Arabian states tend to encourage this view, each nursing their private grievances towards Iran as the Islamic and/or Shiite sore thumb in their field of daisies and divine mandates.
In fact, a reference to Iran can usually snap an unruly US to attention. This was demonstrated by Karzai loudly declaring that Iranian government agents were delivering “bags of money” to his office, at a point when US-Karzai tensions reached a high peak. Not to mention King Abdullah’s injunction for the US to “cut the head of the snake,” which has already been discussed around breakfast tables around the world.
As it turns out, the Wikileaks cables show how the vast playing field of agents, interlocutors, and political intermediaries frequently reference Iran as a way of boosting their importance and drawing the US into their private quarrels, power plays, and jostlings. “Iran Telecom is taking over the country!” were apparently the first words of a Lebanese official to a US diplomat, in reference to Hizbullah’s establishment of country-wide Fios network. (The official is perhaps a Maronite Christian, as he vents about this network being established in Lebanon’s Christian areas). In the meeting, the US official anxiously briefs himself on how “Hizballah now has an army and weapons; a television station; an education system; hospitals; social services; a financial system; and a telecommunications system.”
In the summary concluding the cable, the US diplomat “highlights the system as a strategic victory for Iran, since it creates an important Iranian outpost in Lebanon, bypassing Syria.” All of which fuels the sanctions and thumping of war drums States-side.
Another illustration is provided by a US diplomat posted in Iraq, reporting on a meeting with the nephew of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. “Iran will devour Iraq,” the diplomat reported him as exclaiming in a subtle campaign to maneuver the US in al-Sistani’s camp. In sketching his appearance, the cable shows the psychological influence that the nephew was able to gain over the diplomat. “Son of a respected Najafi Ayatollah, nephew to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, related by marriage to Muqtada al-Sadr, and bearing a faint resemblance to the actor Robert De Niro, [he] is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad but was not wearing the traditional Shia Sayyid’s garb of black turban and cloak during our meeting”.
What the report does expose are the quiet maneuverings of power on the ground, the complexities of entangled allies, interests, and relationships. The nephew roots for al-Sistani against the “pro-Iranian” Maliki, but also subtly blames the US for pushing Sadr towards Iran. He even sneaks in a covert reference to Iraq as “the American Occupation” by chiding the US for not doing something about Iraqi politicians that encourage that view.
But the US has also learnt to balance out its monomania with a grain of salt when listening to all the Iranian boogeyman stories. One of the most colorful political characters to emerge from the cables is Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has apparently overplayed the Iran card by now. Let us look at an anecdote. In a meeting with Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the Saudi deputy defense minister, US diplomats rebuked Saudi Arabia’s military performance against the Yemenis. In return, the Prince complained that Saleh often provided them with false targets: instead of the Yemenis fighting on the border, he had a penchant for providing the locations of his chief political rivals, in the hopes that Saudi missiles would bomb out the competition.
As per the cable: “President Saleh told General Petraeus in a July 26 meeting that the National Security Bureau (NSB) had a DVD showing Houthi rebels training with Hizballah uniforms and tactics. (Note: In a follow-up conversation, [Yemen’s Security Director] Ammar Saleh claimed no knowledge of the DVD. End Note.)”
The US Embassy in San’aa concluded that “documented influence is limited” on Iran’s connection with the Houthis, but that “Iran’s strategic interests in Yemen merit close monitoring in the future.” Translation: “UFOs have been reported with greater scientific basis, but we’re going to pursue the Iran-Houthi link anyway.” It is also useful to interject here that monitoring of this limited documented influence is on the tab of a flagging US economy.
It is almost a truism that US diplomats work behind the scenes to coerce, persuade, and generally, compel foreign governments to ostracize Iran and publicly tar it as a terror-exporting country. After all, materializing the “axis of terror” is hard work — rhetoric has to be backed up by clubs and cash, in varying proportions. But this does not always prove to be a golden formula for obedience. The cables also reveal how cagey opponents can be, skirting the give and take of diplomatic negotiation with evasion, duplicity, and other basics of political maneuvering.
Turkey, a growing object of US worry and concern, provides a good example of this. A 2009 cable relating a US diplomat’s meeting with Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek proved anything but conclusive as the former attempted to commit the Turkish government to the US agenda in the war on terror. Simsek countered by placing the Kurdish issue on the front burner declaring: “Turkey was one of the first countries to adopt an Anti-Terror Law and [is] a long-time victim of domestic and international terror attacks.”
Nor could the US diplomat achieve a tangible result from broaching the issue of isolating Iranian business on the grounds of terrorism. “Simsek said Turkish financial institutions would continue to apply… special vigilance when dealing with Iran, but noted that Turkey has the geographic reality of a long border and trading history with Iran. He noted this trade must be financed on an ongoing basis and insisted the US must keep this in mind. Simsek said Turkey would welcome any specific intelligence the [US government] can share about Iranian entities supporting terrorism.” Simsek apparently knows a thing or two about the art of polished evasion.
Perhaps Wikileaks didn’t reveal anything “new” to observers of empire. (As a caveat, numerous cables have simply not been revealed to the public because their content is “too explosive”). But it provided a look into day-to-day imperial operations, uncovering a rather marbled look at power. Mainstream media offers a rather flavorless edition of power’s self-image. The bland newstream recited by Ken-dolls like NBC’s Brian Williams easily reinforces our sense of US power as ubiquitous, all-knowing, covering the globe like Reddi-Whip coated meringue-pie.
What Wikileaks really shows us is how to look differently. Power is rather like those swirled cheeses you get in some fancy grocery stores; the white milk curd spiraled with the fruits and condiments. The whiteness of US power is occupied by a great many players, each directing and jockeying it towards their own purposes so that in the end, it becomes dyed in their colors. The garrisons and stations of US power not only use local political figures, they get soundly used by them. And it is no wonder how imperial treasures are spilled, how power gets spent out on the earth.