What do Arabs really think about Iran?

At Foreign Policy, Amjad Atallah writes:

Ever since Iran’s revolution in 1979, Arab governments have been concerned about the possibility of the revolution being exported. The idea that millions of citizens of a state would engage in mass scale non-violent resistance against a U.S.-backed authoritarian government kept Arab leaders awake at night. The fear was so palpable that almost all the Arab states (along with the U.S. and many European states) supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 in the hopes of quashing the new model of governance that Ayatollah Khomeini was overseeing. One decade and one million lives later, Arab governments were reassured that Iran could not extend its influence into their countries, but quickly turned on their benefactor, Saddam Hussein, when they realized that he had become the regional behemoth as a result of their support for him during the war (as evidenced by his takeover of Kuwait). In 1991, the Arab states turned around and supported the United States as we destroyed Iraq’s military and civilian infrastructure. But they drew the line at regime change — Arab states were not prepared to support the U.S. in overthrowing the Baathist government and urged the U.S. to allow Saddam to crush the popular uprising throughout the country to overthrow him on the tail of the U.S. war. Estimates indicate that as many as a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed. As a result, both Iran and Iraq were “contained.”

Are Arab governments considering yet another war? Despite the repeated unconfirmed reports about anonymous Arab leaders urging Obama to follow Israel’s lead, the circumstances today are very different than 1979 or 1991. There is no threat from either Iraq or Iran toward any neighboring Arab state, not real or imagined. Iran’s unique blend of western parliamentary democracy and the “rule of jurisprudents” hasn’t really gained any adherents outside Iran. The two other Shia majority states, Iraq and Lebanon, have effectively adopted western parliamentary forms of government without any clerical overlay. And the popularity of Iran’s leaders has been eclipsed — not by any Arab leader — but by the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan whose ambitious and vigorous diplomacy in the region (combined with very real economic engagement) has made him a superstar — draining the air out of the Ahmadinejad bubble. The final popping of that bubble for Arab states will not come from a disastrous U.S. attack on Iran, but from resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. And finally, of course, no one in the region believes that Iran will invade any other country.

Jonathan Steele reviews some of the findings from a recent Zogby poll conducted in six Arab states:

On Iran a majority were not convinced by Tehran’s denials of having a nuclear weapons programme. The Obama administration will presumably be pleased to learn that 57% think Iran is trying to make a bomb. What will be more troubling for the White House is the finding that only 20% think foreign countries are entitled to put pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme and, even more strikingly, that 57% believe it would be positive for the region for Iran to have the bomb.

This is astonishing, at least for anybody who took at face value the Washington line that Iran is perceived as the biggest threat within the region. Bush and Cheney spent years trying to ally Arab states against Iran, including by attempting to make Shia/Sunni differences a major political issue. Iran is of course a Shia country. Obama continued the policy, but it has backfired. With the exception of Lebanon, the countries in the poll not only have huge Sunni majorities, they are the very countries on which Washington has spent most effort to build an anti-Iranian alliance. Their rulers may take the US line, but their people do not.

It’s true that support for Iran having nuclear weapons may simply mean “Leave Iran alone”. It may also be a message to Obama not to go on falling for Netanyahu’s diversionary ruse that resolving Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians is a sideshow compared to the issue of Iran getting the bomb. Most Arabs refuse to accept that order of priorities, which is why the poll found 88% of its respondents named Israel as the world’s biggest threat, followed by the US at 77%. Only 10% cited Iran.

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4 thoughts on “What do Arabs really think about Iran?

  1. scott

    I’ve been saying this for quite a while. I have one issue with the article, calling Lebanon and Iraq “Shia majority” states while true offers a poor parallel with Iran. Lebanon and Iraq are closely divided among three populations. In fact, Sunnis out number Shia in Iraq. For some reason Kurds who are Sunni are counted as different than other Iraqi Sunni. Certainly the Kurds have different political aims than the “Sunni” in the rest of Iraq, but few recognize that Kurd is a nationality of Sunni people.

    Lebanon is also divided among Shia, Sunni and Christian and these groups have subsets. These closely divided countries bear little resemblance to Iran which is predominantly Shia. I don’t believe the Shia comprise a majority in the two other states as they do in Iran.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    With 57% of the populations polled in the most modern Arab nations believing that an Iranian nuclear capability would be a positive factor for the region it is clear that the secret Israeli nuclear arsenal offers a more powerful lever over Netanyahu than the settlements. The US can ‘out’ Israel without any vote in Congress.

    Placing the Israeli nuclear weapons under UN guardianship — with an ironclad stipulation that they will be released to the IDF if an aggressor army sets foot on Israel/Palestinian territory — would serve to lessen the fears on both sides.

  3. scott

    Chris, I don’t buy it. I don ‘t think the US will ever call for that, though we may, after our collapse find that difficult to maintain. But more broadly, I don’t think those nukes are worth anything. The only real scenario where Israel could use nukes would be in a Masada Redux.

  4. Barney.

    What do Arabs really think about Iran? Many Sunni — in particular, Salafi and Wahabbi –consider Shia and their related Sufi offshoots to be little better than the unbeliever Kufar, though many Sunni are perfectly prepared to get on with Shia for the sake of a peaceful life.

    Shia from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey would probably be more willing to form alliances with Iran, though the more secular minded in Turkey probably wouldn’t trust the ‘Mullah-ocracy’ in Iran for a second.

    Alastair Crooke writes very well on these issues, particularly in his excellent book, “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.” There are also some excellent interviews on youtube with Alastair Crooke/Alan Hart on the topic, aswell as numerous pages on his Conflicts Forum website.

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