Secret cables reveal that U.S. believes Iran has advanced missiles

Julian Assange, the founder of, speaks with The Washington Post's Rocci Fisch and answers reader questions on just released secret Afghan war documents published by the web site.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 8:23 PM

The United States believes Iran has obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could reach Moscow and cities across Western Europe, one of several secret diplomatic assessments of Iran's weapons program disclosed publicly for the first time Sunday.

The treasure trove of secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and reported Sunday by several news organizations chronicle the Iranian nuclear standoff from its genesis. The diplomatic memos disclose the extent to which many of the United States's allies in the Arab world repeatedly implored Washington to stop Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In one such plea, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reportedly urged U.S. officials in 2008 to "cut off the head of the snake" while there was still time.

In another, in May 2009, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, argued that the world had six to 18 months "in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable." According to a secret cable that the U.S. ambassador to Israel, James B. Cunningham, sent to Washington, Barak said: "Any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage."

In November 2009, Bahrain's King Hamad argued forcefully for taking action to terminate Iran's nuclear program, by whatever means necessary, according to one diplomatic cable.

"The program must be stopped," Hamad said in a meeting with Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command. "The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it."

The accounts are based on a report published Sunday afternoon by the New York Times, one of five American and European news organizations granted advance access to the cables by WikiLeaks.

According to the accounts, the United States believes that North Korea is helping Iran achieve its atomic ambitions by helping the country develop more-formidable long-range ballistic missiles.

At the same time, the cables reportedly show how Israel, the Saudis and U.S. allies in the region have grown more unified in their desire to halt Iran's ascent. While those countries have been publicly cautious, for fear of retributions from their powerful neighbor, they privately clamored for strong steps by the United States, using diplomacy, covert action or force, according to the New York Times.

The cables show officials from Persian Gulf states unable to decide which would be worse: a strike against Iran and the resulting turmoil it would cause in the region, or inaction and having to live with a nuclear-capable Iran.

The cables reveal the deep distrust of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shared by U.S. diplomats and officials from America's Arab allies. In 2005, military leaders from the United Arab Emirates said during a meeting with the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, that Ahmadinejad "seemed unbalanced, crazy even," according to one cable documented by the New York Times.

A few months later, the Emirates' defense chief, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, told Abizaid that he believed the United States needed to take action against Iran "this year or next."

Yet the cables also appear to show the disparate attempts of Washington to confront Tehran. President Bush, focused on ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggled to put together even modest sanctions against Iran, according to the Times' report.

Meanwhile, President Obama was determined to not appear weak to the Iranians despite his promise of "engagement." The cables reportedly show how Obama's advisers rolled out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. Although the Obama administration expected this outreach to fail, it believed the effort would help build support for tougher measures.

And as the government obtained new intelligence about Iran's growing missile program, the Obama administration maneuvered to win Russian support for sanctions. It replaced a Bush-era plan for a missile defense site in Poland with one closer to Iran's coast. The cables also apparently reveal a successful U.S. plan to get the Saudis to offer China an increased supply of oil to wean it from energy dependence on Iran, which resulted in a commitment from China to join in sanctions against Iran.

The cables show that the Obama administration is doubtful that a military strike would keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb in the future. One cable earlier this year revealed that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered a stark assessment to Herve Morin, the French defense minister. Any strike against Iran, Gates apparently said, "would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker."

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