Lebanese attitudes towards Iran defy oversimplification

A recent poll had very strange findings about Lebanese attitudes toward Iran. On important matters, pollsters have a duty to explain how they reach such out-of-step findings.

Apparently a revolution of ideas has gone undetected in Lebanon, with consequences for US standing and regional powers such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel. At least that is what a recent poll indicates, but is it accurate? Has Lebanon - religiously diverse and often divided - really overcome centuries-old differences to achieve nearly complete consensus on an issue splitting the Middle East: Iran.

At least, that is what most Middle East observers thought when presented with the findings of the newly released "Arab Attitudes, 2011" polls, conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the Arab American Institute (AAI).

According to the findings, which were reported in The National by James Zogby, the president of the AAI, only 2 per cent of Lebanese believe "Iran's interference in Arab affairs is the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East". Lebanon is reportedly the outlier in the survey, with substantial majorities in other Arab countries holding unfavourable views of Iran.

If true, these findings would constitute a political earthquake in Lebanon, where the Shiite militant group Hizbollah, a US-designated terrorist group, receives millions of dollars worth of Iranian weaponry every year. Not only does the survey suggest that Lebanon has finally found cross-communal consensus on a deeply divisive issue, but also that there is now overwhelming acceptance of Hizbollah - Iran's Lebanese proxy - and its armed status as the pre-eminent military power in the country.

If the poll is correct, Lebanese politics as we have known them have come to an end. Sunni-Shiite tensions, US-Iranian rivalry played out in Lebanon, and the March 8 versus March 14 coalitions would all be things of the past. By these results, almost all Lebanese people, 98 per cent according to the poll, no longer view Iranian interference as a major threat, paving the way for Tehran's popular and military influence in the country.

For most observers, it's an unlikely scenario at best. Could there truly have been such an extraordinary shift in Lebanese politics?

For sceptics of these findings, the non-partisan Pew Research Center offers a less exciting, but per haps more reasonable, view of Lebanon in its 2011 Global Attitudes Project. While support for Iran was not directly addressed, results show that support among Lebanese people for Iran's proxy Hizbollah was at only 38 per cent, far less than the Zogby poll suggested.

Not surprisingly, sharp differences of opinion persisted across the communal divides. While 87 per cent of Shiites support the Iranian-backed group, a meagre 8 per cent of Sunnis and 24 per cent of Christians shared the sentiment.

The Pew Research Center's results went farther in contradicting Zogby International's findings, indicating that respondents in Lebanon, returned the highest levels of favourable ratings for the United States among all Arab countries. It was a finding hardly consistent with an overwhelming approval of Iran.

When asked about the United States, 49 per cent of respondents gave a favourable response, indicating that America is more popular than Hizbollah inside Lebanon. According to Pew, this trend has held steady for more than a decade, with a marked jump in favourability ratings in 2005, when US diplomatic efforts joined most Lebanese people in calling for an end to Syria's military occupation.

So which is to be believed? Is Iran or America winning the battle for hearts and minds in Lebanon?

While no one can provide a definitive answer, a closer look at the methodology of both surveys indicates that the sample size of Pew's poll is nearly double that of Zogby International's, and is seemingly more representative.

Polling methodology and technicalities aside, the dramatic nature of Zogby International's findings defy longstanding political trends, communal realities and the general intuition in the opinion of many Middle East observers. The numbers need to be explained, not only in terms of the methodology but the underlying assumptions. Even a poll conducted by the Hizbollah-affiliated Beirut Research Center could not point to the same widespread acceptance of Iranian interference as the Zogby poll did.

The conclusions of the Zogby International poll make sweeping statements not just about Lebanon but about all of the Arab countries that were surveyed. Those results can affect government policy and shape public attitudes in a self-fulfilling manner. Given Zogby International's established polling credibility in US politics and beyond, there needs to be more clarity on the results of this recent poll - and why they differ so widely from other surveys and Middle East conventional wisdom.

When such important relationships are at stake, Arab countries and the American people have a right to ask whether or not they are being misled.

Firas Maksad is a Middle East analyst and the director at Lebanon Renaissance Institute