As public support for Iran dips, time to recalibrate policy

We know that Iran has lost popularity in the Arab and Muslim world. What policy signals does this send to regional powers?

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Once viewed positively by sizeable majorities in almost every country across the region, Iran has experienced a precipitous decline in its favourable ratings, according to polling conducted by my company.

Initial findings were outlined in my column on March 10. Now it is time to assess some policy implications of shifts in public opinion.

The change in attitudes appears to be driven largely by concerns about Iran's policies in Iraq, Syria and the Arabian Peninsula region.

At the same time, a worrisome sectarian divide has opened up between Sunni and Shia Muslims in several countries in the region, most notably in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan.

Majorities of survey respondents blame Iranian policies, rightly or wrongly. But local grievances and violent acts by sect-based extremist groups have also played a significant role in aggravating tensions.

The effect of this deepening divide is somewhat muted, but is definitely not erased by issues of ethnicity and culture, which still define the identities of most Arabs and Muslims.

Iran's nuclear programme, once strongly supported by the general public, if not by governments, is now a subject of concern in most countries. Just six years ago, most Arabs and Muslims were willing to defend Iran against international pressure (siding with Tehran that uranium enrichment is a sovereign right). But now they want the international community to do something to rein in Iran's ambitions. Sanctions against Iran, once strongly opposed, are now supported by a majority of Arabs and Muslims in most countries.

There has also been an increase in support for military action against Iran, should it persist in its nuclear programme, but majorities in almost all countries remain opposed to this option.

Finally, the United States has experienced a slight improvement in its favourable ratings in Arab opinion and, more importantly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Arabs and Muslims who now see (or hope to see) the US playing a positive role in promoting peace and stability in the region.

With Arab and Muslim public opinion in flux and regional sensitivities high, policymakers should consider their options carefully.

Iran, for one, should see these trends as evidence of its isolation and the precariousness of its position, and be careful not to overplay its hand in its regional endeavours.

In the past, Tehran's defiant behaviour might have won support from an appreciative regional audience. Today the same posture is seen as being threatening and provocative.

The volatility of opinion gives governments in the region additional incentive to address domestic concerns, and also to coordinate their policies with those of their neighbours to rein in the extremist groups that are fuelling sectarian discontent and alienation. This creates fertile ground that is exploited by both Iran and its allies.

These are also implications for Israel in these findings. For instance, should the Palestinian situation explode in renewed violence and systematic repression, and should the US, as expected, continue to side with Israel, this could inflame regional passions reopening a door that Iran had closed on itself.

The United States should recognise the benefits that have accrued from its lower profile and its effort to work with allies by "leading from behind". Should the United States change course and either resume a belligerent posture or take unsupported and unpopular unilateral military action against Iran, this might serve only to refocus the region's attention away from Iran's meddlesome behaviours.

Finally, all parties should reconsider the wisdom of bellicose threats and suggestions of military action. This kind of bluster only exacerbates tensions and deepens regional divides. It also plays into the hands of those in Iran who have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to turn threats (or an actual attack, should it come to that) into an increase in support across the region.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa