President Obama may have scored a diplomatic win by securing international support for biting sanctions against Iran, but Arab public opinion is moving in a different direction. Polling conducted last month by Zogby and the University of Maryland in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates suggests that views in the region are shifting toward a positive perception of Iran’s nuclear program.
These views present problems for Washington, which has counted on Arabs seeing Iran as a threat — maybe even a bigger one than Israel. So why is Arab public opinion toward Iran shifting?
According to our polling, a majority of Arabs do not believe Iran’s claim that it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. But an overwhelming majority believe that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons and should not be pressured by the international community to curtail its program. Even more telling, a majority of those polled this year say that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the outcome would be positive for the Middle East. In 2009, only 29% of respondents viewed that as a positive.
To be sure, the results varied from country to country, with a significant majority in Egypt viewing a nuclear Iran positively, while a majority in the United Arab Emirates viewed such an outcome negatively. However, the trend in the past year is striking.
The shortest path to understanding this turn in Arab public opinion is to examine Arab views of American foreign policy in the Middle East. In the early months of the Obama administration (spring 2009), our polling found that a remarkable 51% of those surveyed expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East, a stark contrast to nearly a decade of gloom that preceded Obama’s election. A little over a year later, however, the number of optimists had dropped to only 16%, with 63% expressing pessimism. This pessimism, more than any other issue, explains the turn in Arab attitudes toward Iran. Arabs tend to view Iran largely through the prism of American and Israeli policies.
Most Arabs have no love for Iran, and many see the country as a significant threat. But the Arab public does not see Iran as the biggest danger in the region. In an open question asking about the two countries that pose the biggest threats to their security, 88% of respondents identified Israel, 77% identified the United States, and only 10% identified Iran. The angrier the public is with Israel and the United States, the less they worry about Iran, viewing it first and foremost as “the enemy of my enemy.”
When American officials speak of Arab attitudes toward Iran, they are generally speaking of the positions of Arab governments, most of which are quite concerned about the growing power of Iran, especially given the decline of Iraq’s regional power, which used to serve as a counterbalance. But even Arab governments that worry about Iran do so for different reasons.
Some of Iran’s smaller Arab neighbors, particularly the United Arab Emirates, have genuine security worries. For more distant states such as Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, the worry is largely about Iran’s influence on public opinion within their countries and Iran’s support for movements opposing their governments. They understand that Iran’s influence is drawn primarily from regional frustration with the United States and with the stalemate on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is why they see addressing that conflict as the surest way to curtail Iran’s influence.
All of this brings us to a crucial question: What explains the dramatic turn in Arab attitudes toward the Obama administration in the past year? It was not that Arabs didn’t appreciate the effort the administration made to change American attitudes toward Muslims and Islam. Those polled identified that as the Obama administration’s policy they liked most. But the reason for the shift cannot be missed: 61% of Arabs polled identified U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict as the single issue in which they were most disappointed in Obama.
Year after year, our polling has shown that this issue remains the primary prism through which Arabs view American policy in the Middle East. Arab disappointment with the slow progress toward peace, the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip and the tragedy of the Gaza flotilla have provided the central window for Arab views. And Iran has gained as a consequence.
When American officials speak to the Arab public and highlight the threat of a nuclear Iran as the central problem facing the region, they cannot expect to get public sympathy or attention. The view in the region is not that confronting Iran is an essential prerequisite to Arab-Israeli peace. Rather, most Arabs believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians must precede limiting Iran’s influence.
Here, there is both good and bad news. On the plus side, the vast majority of Arabs are prepared to accept a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a plurality believe that such a solution could come only through negotiations, not through another war. The bad news is that a majority no longer believes that such a solution will ever happen, which increases the anger of Arabs toward the United States and causes them to see Iran in a much more positive light.
Shibley Telhami is a professor at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.