x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A sectarian divide as Iran alienates its Arab neighbours

Survey findings show that Iran has lost a lot of public support in the Arab world and the region in recent years.

Policy discussions in the United States about Iran and its nuclear programme most often focus on Israeli concerns. Ignored are Arab and Muslim attitudes, especially those of Iran's Arab and non-Arab Muslim neighbours. It is known that several Arab governments have problems with the Islamic Republic in Tehran, but what of their citizens?

Over the past decade, Zogby International has been polling regional attitudes toward Iran and its policies culminating at the end of 2012 with a survey of 20,000 citizens in 17 Arab countries and three non-Arab Muslim countries (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan). This 20-nation poll covered a range of topics including attitudes toward Iran, its people, culture and nuclear programme.

Comparing our most recent findings to the data from our earlier surveys in the region reveals important and dramatic changes in Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Iran. It also helps to identify factors that appear to serve as drivers behind these changes.

For example, when we polled on many of these same issues in 2006, Iran's favourable ratings in Arab and Muslim countries were at their highest point. Back then, in most countries, Iran's favourable ratings were in the 75 per cent range (with Saudis giving Iran an 85 per cent rating). Six years later the tables have turned. Now Iran's favourable ratings in these same countries have fallen to less than 25 per cent (Saudi ratings have plummeted to 15 per cent).

What emerges from our 2011 and 2012 polls is that the earlier favourable attitudes were not about Iran, per se. Instead, they appear to have been a reaction to Arabs' fury at Israel's behaviour and US policies in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, coupled with the perception that Iran and its allies were standing firm in opposition to the "machinations of the West". What changed in 2012 is that the United States has lowered its regional profile, while Iran is perceived to be playing a divisive role in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria.

What also emerges from our 2012 survey is the worrisome sectarian divide that has taken hold in several countries, with Sunni attitudes largely opposing Iran and its regional policies, and Shia communities in many of these same countries expressing support for Iran. There is a growing consensus among both Sunni and Shia people that Iran and its policies are contributing to this sectarian rift. There is, however, a limit to Iran's appeal in the Arab world even among Shia, and that is the result of the important role that Arab culture and identity play as unifying factors in shaping attitudes across sectarian lines.

There was a time, just a few years ago, when favourable Arab attitudes towards Iran in some countries stood poles apart from the positions of their governments. Some observers suggested that the concerns with Iran's policies expressed by Arab governments were out of touch with their citizens. That may have been true in 2006, but after Iran and its allies overplayed their hand in several countries (with Syria being the nail in the coffin - in 17 of the 20 countries covered in our survey, most people oppose Iran's involvement in Syria), that gap has been erased. Most Arabs and Muslims now hold decidedly negative views of Iran and are opposed to Iran's regional ambitions.

The same is true of Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Iran's nuclear programme. In 2006, when Iran was seen as the bastion of resistance to the West, its nuclear ambitions were supported and defended by majorities in most countries. Earlier polls showed Arab and Muslim public opinion supporting Iran's claim that the programme was for peaceful purposes.

Whether peaceful or not, strong majorities in almost every country were opposed to any international effort to impose sanctions or use military means against Tehran. Today, there is virtually no support for Iran's nuclear ambitions - with majorities now believing that Tehran has designs on producing a nuclear weapon. And sympathy for Iran has been replaced by widespread support for sanctions to stop Iran should it persist in advancing its nuclear programme.

Opposition to the use of military force remains high, with strong majorities still against it. But here too there has been a change, with an increase in the number of those who now support the use of a military strike should Iran persist with its nuclear programme.

The lesson is clear. When Iran was seen in the Arab and Muslim worlds through the prism of US and Israeli practices, it won. But when Iran is judged by its regional behaviour and its domestic repression, it loses support.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa