Iran's reputation rises and falls with the regional tides
Iran's reputation is in free fall across the Arab world, with negative perceptions of its behaviour in Iraq, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab Gulf region. These are a few of the key findings of an Arab American Institute poll conducted by Zogby International during the first three weeks of June.
The poll surveyed more than 4,000 Arabs from Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and had a margin of error of 3.5 per cent (in Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and 4.5 per cent (in Lebanon, Jordan and the UAE).
Back in 2006, Iran was generally viewed favourably by most people in these countries - and in five of the six of them, Iran received a positive rating greater than 80 per cent.
Since then, the decline has been steady and sharp. For example, in 2006 Iran was viewed favourably by 85 per cent of Saudis and 82 per cent of Moroccans. By 2008, that had dropped to 72 per cent in Saudi Arabia and 65 per cent in Morocco. By 2009, only 35 per cent of Saudis and 57 per cent of Moroccans had a favourable view of Iran. And in our 2011 poll, positive views of Iran plummeted further to a scant 6 per cent in Saudi Arabia and 14 per cent in Morocco.
The poll demonstrates widespread Arab concerns with Iran's behaviour in the region, with strong majorities in every country except Lebanon saying that Iran threatens the peace and stability of the Arab world. Special concern was expressed about Iran in relation to Iraq and Bahrain, and about Iran's nuclear aspirations.
In most Arab countries (again, except Lebanon), the overwhelming preference is for the Middle East to be a nuclear-weapons free zone. But when asked: "If you had to choose one country, other than Israel, to be a nuclear power in the Middle East ...", the preferred choice by a wide margin was Egypt. Turkey was a distant second, followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iran was last, receiving little or no support from respondents in almost every Arab country.
Because there is widespread Arab concern with Iran's apparent intention to be the region's dominant power, and because its role in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf is viewed negatively, pluralities in most countries expressed support for the GCC's new assertiveness.
The largest group of respondents approved of the GCC's role in Bahrain as well as Gulf countries' efforts to hasten an end to the conflict in Yemen and transition to a new government.
Iran's foreign policy has contributed to this turnaround in perceptions of it in the Arab world. But there are other factors as well.
In the past, Iran was able to capitalise on US bellicosity and blunders in the region. During George W Bush's administration, for example, there was widespread outrage at the United States over the invasion of Iraq and horrors like those committed at Abu Ghraib. US support for Israel during the devastation of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 and 2009 worsened perceptions. Iran was able to turn that region-wide rage to its benefit, especially as the Bush administration and Israel directed so much hostile rhetoric against Tehran.
During the past few years, US hostility towards Iran has not diminished, but the dynamic in the Arab world has changed. President Barack Obama's policy of "engagement", while falling short of its stated goals, has reduced the decibel level of US threats. And with the "Arab spring" underway, the attention of the region has turned inward.
The US has become less focused on Iran and a bit disorientated - having to deal simultaneously with turmoil in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain; a failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process; and the need to withdraw from a still deeply troubled Iraq.
Amid all of this, Arab public opinion no longer sees Iran's behaviour as a counter to America's domination, but as a source of instability seeking to exploit troubled areas for its own gain. Add the Iranian regime's brutal confrontation with the Green Revolution, and even politically frustrated and alienated citizens of Arab countries no longer view Iran in a positive light.
It was once believed that only Arab governments feared Iran's push for hegemony, while Arab public opinion viewed Iran quite differently. Our polling demonstrates that while that might have been true in 2006 and 2008, by 2011 this is no longer the case. Iran is no longer seen through the prism of confrontation with the US and Israel. Increasingly, it is seen and judged as a country ready to exploit every opportunity to become a regional hegemon.
A cautionary note: the one thing that could reverse this evolving Arab attitude would be an Israeli or US attack on Iran.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
Updated: July 31, 2011 04:00 AM