Report: Arabs Divided on Iran

February 25, 2013

            Arabs hold complex and sometimes conflicting views of Iran, according to a new report by the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Attitudes toward Iran in countries with large Shiite populations such as Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain tend to fall along sectarian lines. But Sunni Arab populations elsewhere have a more complicated view of the Islamic Republic.
            Polling has shown that individuals who feel threatened by Iran can simultaneously admire it. Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have consistently named Iran the third most threatening state after Israel and the United States in polls since 2009. Yet Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas has won it popularity in the Arab world, according to the report. Egyptian and Tunisian Sunnis have consistently expressed affinity with the Islamic nature of Iran’s government. But they are still concerned with Shiite influence.
            The report concludes that Iran will probably have ample opportunity to influence regional politics in the absence of a “stable, popular, and credible” Egypt that can lead the Arab world. The following are excerpts from the report, with a link to the full text at the end.

Varieties of Arab Government Attitudes Toward Iran
            Arab governments worried about Iranian influence after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and oil-wealthy Arab states bankrolled Iraq’s war with the Islamic Republic for 8 years — even though most had no love for Saddam Hussein’s regime. They saw Iran’s influence expand after the 2003 war, given the decline of Iraq’s power and increasing Iranian influence in Iraq itself. Part of the Arab rulers’ concern pertains to Iranian influence with their restive Shi’a Arab communities, but it goes beyond that;  the United Arab Emirates claims three islands that Iran controls in the Gulf; Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon; and all the Arab states in the region are American allies, with heavy and unpopular military presence in the region that the Islamic Republic of Iran uses against them.
            But it is noteworthy that Iran’s feared influence is only partly military and even more so
political. It is also worth noting the differences among Arab states on how to deal with Iran…
Arab Governments and the Nuclear Issue
            Whereas the Israeli fear of a nuclear Iran encompasses its consequences for Iran’s projection of conventional power and influence, it centers principally on a sense of  existential threat to Israel. Arabs, on the other hand, including GCC states, worry  principally about Iran’s conventional power and even more about its ability to influence  their public opinion through the projection of power. Certainly they do not  want to see a nuclear Iran, but driving this is an Arab public perception of Iranian power and achievement that in turn empowers segments of the public against the rulers. In the past  few weeks, for example, following announcements by Iran that it had successfully sent a monkey to space and had produced its own fighter aircraft, the Saudi media gave much coverage to de-bunking the claims through stories that argued that the returned monkey appeared different from the one sent and the photos of the supposed Iranian airplane were Photoshopped. The bottom line is that much of the worry is about Iranian influence, more so than about possible Iranian nuclear weapons as such…
            The complexity of these Arab attitudes means that, unless and until Egypt becomes a  stable, popular, and credible Arab power that captures Arab public imaginations, Iran will continue to have ample opportunity to influence politics in the region, with or without war and regardless of what happens in Syria—particularly in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace. For American policy toward Iran, including the prospects of war, the starting point is, of course, an analysis of direct American interests. What is clear is that even aside from the potential military and economic costs of war with Iran, war is unlikely to limit, and can possibly expand, Iranian opportunities for influence in the Arab world—regardless of its consequences for Iran’s nuclear program.

Click here for the full report.