The behind-the-scenes revelations about American diplomacy really only shock three groups of people.
The first is those who believe the US is a force for unalloyed good in the world with a foreign policy rooted in principle rather than pragmatism. Even after the past nine years the number of those in that category is higher than many would think. For them, the problem with the US invading Iraq was not that it broke international law on a false pretext, leaving thousands dead or displaced, but that it lost. The lesson they have drawn is not that the US needs to adopt more subtle methods than bombing, torturing and invading but that not all of the world is ready for freedom. Last month, during the final debate between the Colorado Senatorial candidates, Republican, Ken Buck, said: "It's a fundamental mistake to assume that a people as backward as the Afghans are going to be able to build the industrialised nation and the democracy that it takes to be able to achieve what we would consider a western-style democracy."
The second group is those who believe that the US can call the shots unilaterally and need not care about whatever anyone else thinks. This has long been acknowledged by the country's intelligence forces.
"Owing to the relative decline of its economic and, to a lesser extent, military power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many policy options," concluded the National Intelligence Council (which co-ordinates analysis from all US intelligence agencies) in early 2009.
The leaks reveal, among other things, just how tight the room for manoeuvre can be in the current period. They show the US attempting to trade a presidential visit to Slovenia in return for the Slovenes taking a Guantánamo prisoner and expose its inability to prevent Syrians arming Hezbollah in Lebanon.
These first two may appear like straw men. But in the domestic political arena it is a bold national politician who insists that the US is anything but unrivalled in might and morality. And after the Republican victories in the mid-term elections, they will now need to be bolder still.
But, finally, the third group: those on the left, who mistook American diplomacy for acts of either unalloyed evil or delusion. News of America resisting calls from the Arab world to bomb Iran simply show it is more than capable of a rational appraisal in global affairs. The diplomats in question, charged with looking after their national interests, understand that such an attack would not be in the country's interests in the region. These were probably the same diplomats who desperately tried to dissuade George Bush from invading Iraq. The state department, lest we forget, voiced internal opposition to the war and predicted many of the things that went wrong.
If anything, what the leaks tell us is, in light of recent events, is that we should not confuse America's domestic politics with its diplomatic engagements; nor should we assume that its foreign and military actions are necessarily guided by its diplomatic assessments.
The relentless global mobilisation of US power against Iran – and of Washington-backed Arab autocracies and dictatorships for an American attack on Tehran – is an ominous thread that runs through thousands of the leaked state department WikiLeaks cables published in the Guardian.
Not only do they underline the danger represented by the threat of aggression against Iran over its nuclear programme, which of course Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes only; but the repeated private demands by the Saudi king Abdullah to "cut off the head of the snake" – backed up by Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain (and, of course, Israel) – also serve to drive home the utterly unrepresentative nature of the client Arab regimes that underpin western power in the Middle East.
While the Arab rulers fear Iran and want the US to attack it, the majority of their people support Iran's nuclear programme and believe it would be "positive" for the region if Iran did develop nuclear weapons – according to the most recent poll carried out by the US Zogby polling organisation and Maryland University in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other pro-western Arab states. Asked which countries threatened their security, 88% replied Israel, 77% the US and just 10% Iran.
No doubt Saudi and Egyptian leaders will be more careful about what they say to American ambassadors in future.
But then they're not the only ones. Now it's emerged from the WikiLeaks cables that Hillary Clinton has instructed US embassy staff around the world to spy on UN staff and leaders, as well as a wide range of political, business and religious figures, down to their biometric and credit card details. Plenty of others who meet US diplomats are likely to keep a closer eye on their pockets.
The securitocracy has been out in force in the media, attacking WikiLeaks and repeating their well-worn mantra: government secrecy is essential to keep us all safe. It is seriously argued that ambassadors will not in future give candid advice if there is a chance that that advice might become public. In the past 12 hours I have heard this remarkable proposition put forward on five different television networks, without anybody challenging it. I was wearily familiar with these pro-secrecy arguments in more than 20 years as a British diplomat, six of them in the senior management structure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Put it another way and the cracks start to appear. The best advice is advice you would not be prepared to defend in public. Really? Why? In today's globalised world, embassies are not a unique source of expertise. Often, expatriate, academic and commercial organisations are a lot better informed. The best policy advice is not advice that is shielded from peer review.
What the establishment mean is that ambassadors should be free to recommend things that the general public would view with deep opprobrium, without any danger of being found out. But should they really be allowed to do that, in a democracy?
I have never understood why it is felt that behaviours that would be considered reprehensible in private or even commercial life – like lying, or saying one thing to one person and the opposite to another person – should be considered acceptable, or even praiseworthy, in diplomacy.
When ambassador to Uzbekistan, I was rebuked by the then head of the diplomatic service for reporting to London by unclassified email the details of dreadful human rights abuses by the Uzbek government. The FCO were concerned that the Uzbeks, who were intercepting our communications, would discover that I disapproved of their human rights violations. This might endanger the Uzbek alliance with British forces in neighbouring Afghanistan. For the FCO, diplomacy is synonymous with duplicity.
Among British diplomats, this belief that their profession exempts them from the normal constraints of decent behaviour amounts to a cult of Machiavellianism, a pride in their own amorality. It is reinforced by their narrow social origins – still in 2010, 80% of British ambassadors went to private schools. As a group, they view themselves as ultra-intelligent Nietzschean supermen, above normal morality.
Some web commenters have noted that the released diplomatic cables reflect the US's political agenda, and there is even a wedge of the blogosphere suggesting that WikiLeaks is therefore a CIA front. This is nonsense. Of course the documents reflect the US view – they are official US government communications. What they show is something I witnessed personally, that diplomats as a class very seldom tell unpalatable truths to politicians, but rather report and reinforce what their masters want to hear, in the hope of receiving preferment.
There is therefore a huge amount about Iran's putative nuclear arsenal and an exaggeration of Iran's warhead delivery capability. But there is nothing about Israel's massive nuclear arsenal. That is not because WikiLeaks has censored criticism of Israel. It is because any US diplomat who made an honest and open assessment of Israeli crimes would very quickly be an unemployed ex-diplomat.
• Craig Murray is a political activist and former ambassador to Uzbekistan
An ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country. To lie, but not to spy, a much more dangerous activity, as the 16th century wit who penned the well-known adage would have known only too well.
The WikiLeaks cables suggest the lines between diplomacy and spying have become blurred. "The intelligence community relies on state [department] reporting officers for much of the biographical information collected wordwide," says one of cables. What appears to have shocked most journalist commentators is the apparently brazen and unembarrassed request for detailed personal information, including credit card numbers and frequent flyer account numbers, of senior UN officials.
Will the US ever learn? Shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a conscientious GCHQ translator, Katharine Gun, leaked a memo from the National Security Agency urging the British to help bug the phones of the UN. It caused a storm in the media.
Intelligence agencies and diplomats eager for recognition demand more and more information; the question is, is it useful.
The irony is that these 250,000 or so cables, subjected to varying degrees of classification (but not the highest, there are no intelligence agency cables here) were distributed to 2.5 million people because of the failure to share relevant information before the 9/11 attacks.
US agencies are flooded with information as it is – what good would it really achieve getting the flyer accounts of a UN official?
One test is to consider whether the information in the cables contain such information which could – or should – change US policy. Elements in the Iranian, Russian and Chinese regimes, will make use of these leaks. But in the end, most diplomats and spies will see them as simply embarrassing, hugely so but embarrassing more than anything else.
The work of US diplomats will prove more difficult, perhaps for a long time to come. The real spies are likely to carry on, calmly, and hidden, as before.
The WikiLeaks revelation that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urged Washington to "cut off the head of the snake" and launch a surgical air strike on Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities sounds more sensational than it actually is. The elderly monarch risked nothing by his urgings, which put all the onus, and the possible backlash, on the United States.
It is no secret that the Sunni Arab leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have been alarmed by the rise of Iran as a regional power. That rise has taken place for three reasons. First, the worrisome deterioration in the condition of stateless Palestinians under rightwing governments of Israel since 2001, and that country's increasing belligerence toward neighbours, as with the 2006 Lebanon war, have inflamed passions throughout the region, allowing Iran to position itself as a champion of the weak. Second, the Bush administration destroyed the Sunni Arabs' bulwark against Iran, the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and brought pro-Iranian Shias to power in Baghdad.
Third, Iran has made progress in its nuclear enrichment program. There is no evidence that the Iranians have a nuclear weapons program, but even for Iran to possess the knowledge of how to close the fuel cycle and enrich to the level needed for a bomb would change the power equation in the Middle East. This development would give Iran the "Japan option" of at any time going for broke to put together a warhead.
The aged Saudi monarch has been pursuing an unrealistic policy of trying to put the big blue Iranian genie back in its lantern. But note that King Abdullah has also hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh and has kept a dialogue going with Tehran, buttering his bread on both sides.
Riyadh is not alone in its hysteria. But although Arab officials like Prince Turki al-Kabir of the Saudi foreign ministry threaten the US with a nuclear arms race if Iran gets a warhead, there is no reason to take such assertions as more than a way to put pressure on the Pentagon to do the bidding of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. If the US is wise, it will avoid being stampeded into yet another ruinous Middle Eastern war based on exaggerated fears about alleged weapons programs. Israel already has a nuclear arsenal, which is what is fuelling the current arms race in the region, and if Arab states don't care enough about Tel Aviv's nuclear weapons to seek atomic bombs themselves, it is hard to see how Iran's civilian research program could induce them to do so.
Despite the breathless headlines they generated, the yield of the documents is actually thin. The most populous and militarily most important Arab state, Egypt, appears not to have been among those urging military action. There is no sign in the diplomatic cables of any practical steps toward an Arab attack on Iran, no evidence of logistical or military preparations. At most there is high-level gossip in Arab capitals that something should be done, and by someone else. In any case, if this is the anti-Iranian Arab axis, Tehran can sleep peacefully at night.
• Juan Cole is the Richard P Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of Engaging the Muslim World
The latest batch of WikiLeaks revelations give the impression that it is the Arab states that are most energetically pressuring the US to attack Iran. That's definitely putting the cart before the horse.
In the first place, the Arab governments mentioned as being hostile to Iran – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates – are all undemocratic, unpopular regimes that depend on US support to stay in power. As such, they seem to have absorbed the US claims that Iran is the region's greatest threat to peace.
A completely different view, however, is held by these governments' own subjects, among whom Iran's independent stance is hugely popular. According to a recent poll that asked Arab people in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates to name two countries they thought were the greatest threat to the region, 88% stated Israel, 77% stated the US and only 10% mentioned Iran.
Of course, no Arab country has the military capability of launching a serious attack against Iran. Only Israel has that ability in the region, but Israel is dependent for its continued existence on its $3bn in annual US subsidies and its US-supplied diplomatic firewall in the UN security council. There is almost no way Israel could attack Iran unless it had first been given a green light from Washington or because it had calculated the US would have no choice but to back it up with military force.
Without a doubt, Iran does represent a threat to US imperial interests. Iran takes no orders from Washington, its natural resources are off-limits to Western corporations and it has no love for the corrupt, pro-Western governments that dominate the region. As such, it represents an obstacle to US hegemony.
To demonise Iran, the US has for eight years promoted the myth of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, much as it demonised Iraq through its false charges about weapons of mass destruction. And while this myth has formed the basis for four sets of UN sanctions against Iran, the US has never provided the first shred of proof and its "evidence" of Iran's nuclear weapons studies has now been shown to be simply a fabrication.
No, the principal threat to Iran remains the United States, which for years, prodded by nuclear-armed Israel, has declared that "all options are on the table."
On 5 December, Iran is scheduled to begin revived negotiations with the five permanent UN security council members, plus Germany. This would be an ideal time for Washington to make the following declaration: that it will not attack Iran, will not allow an attack by Israel, will end all sanctions against Iran, will recognise Iran's right under the UN's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue peaceful nuclear power, will return Iran's nuclear file from the UN Security Council to the IAEA in exchange for Iran's stated pledge to allow the intrusive inspections of the IAEA's Additional Protocol and will agree to discuss all outstanding differences in a spirit of mutual respect.
• Abbas Edalat is founder of the Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran. Phil Wilayto is an anti-war activist and author of In Defence of Iran: Notes from a US Peace Delegation's Journey through the Islamic Republic