Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The Arab and Iranian disconnect

The lack of transparency in P5+1 talks with Tehran has spurred Arab fears about what the West has in mind for Iran’s regional role, writes James Zogby

Al-Ahram Weekly

There is widespread upset in capitals across the Arab world at having been sidelined by the Obama administration in the on-going P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Many are suspicious of US intentions and worried that their concerns about Iran’s regional role will be given short shrift in the effort to reach a nuclear agreement.

With this week’s news that the negotiations have once again been extended, media attention has been focused exclusively on reactions from Israel and political leaders in the US. But how are Iran and its nuclear programme seen across the Arab world? And how, for that matter, do Iranians assess their government’s policies and what are their expectations moving forward?

In an effort to answer these questions Zogby Research Services (ZRS) conducted polls in six Arab countries and Iran. The study was commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, an annual November event co-sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of the UAE and the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The results shed light on the deep policy divide that exists between Iran and its neighbours and the dangerous disconnect in the way Arabs, on the one side, and Iranians, on the other, assess the regional role of the Islamic Republic.

In a nutshell, what we found was an Arab world that was increasingly wary of Iran’s policies and nuclear ambitions, and lacking confidence in the outcome of the P5+1 negotiating process. At the same time, we found an Iranian public increasingly in favour of their country’s regional engagement, their “right to possess nuclear weapons”,  and willing to pay the price in economic sanctions and international isolation to maintain their nuclear efforts.

As we have noted in earlier studies, Arab attitudes towards Iran have undergone dramatic changes in the past six years. Back in 2006 to 2008, as many Arabs were reeling from Israel’s devastation of Lebanon and still seething over the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran received high favourable ratings across the Middle East for its “resistance against the West”. But as Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hizbullah, turned their weapons inward, in what some perceived as a sectarian power-grab, and Iran was increasingly judged to be fuelling sectarian strife in several Arab countries, attitudes changed. As we noted in our 2012 study, “Looking at Iran”, it was Iran’s role supporting the Al-Assad government in Syria that became “the nail in the coffin” of Iran’s standing in Arab public opinion.

In 2008, Iran had high favourable ratings in the 70 to 80 per cent range in many Arab countries. By 2011, those attitudes had plummeted by as much as 60 to 70 points in most countries. While some in the West attempted to reduce the matter to sectarianism, in fact it was politics that played a decisive role in the decline. In the eyes of many Arabs, Iran was no longer being perceived as a bastion of principled resistance. It was increasingly viewed as a meddlesome neighbour pursuing a dangerous and divisive agenda.

In our 2014 survey, when we asked Arabs whether Iran “contributes to peace and stability in the region”, between 74 per cent to 88 per cent of Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis responded in the negative. Even 57 per cent of Iraqis saw Iran’s regional role as having a negative impact. And significant majorities or pluralities in these same countries maintained that Iran’s policies had a negative impact on Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.

In marked contrast with these Arab views, 98 per cent of Iranians said that they believed that their country was playing a positive role in the Middle East and that their government’s policies were having a positive impact on Iraq (77 per cent), Syria (72 per cent), Lebanon (68 per cent), Bahrain (58 per cent) and Yemen (52 per cent).

Further evidence of the deep divide that separates the region from Iran is the fact that only Lebanese and Iraqis stated that their countries had a positive relationship with Iran, while substantial majorities in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE said they did not have good relations with Iran, nor did they desire an improvement in relations.

With regard to Iran’s nuclear programme, majorities or strong pluralities in every Arab country believed that Iran “has ambitions to produce nuclear weapons”. And while in a ZRS poll conducted earlier this year most Arabs said that they supported a negotiated solution to the world’s nuclear stand-off with Iran, in this poll, majorities in every country indicated that they are not confident that the on-going negotiations “will succeed in removing the potential threat cause by Iran’s nuclear programme”.

Iranian attitudes on this matter are striking. While Iran’s supreme leader has maintained that his country would not seek to develop nuclear weapons, calling them “immoral”, it appears that the Iranian people aren’t listening. When asked for their opinion on such weapons, 87 per cent said that their country should develop them either because they are a “major nation” and have a right to this weapon or because “as long as other countries have nuclear weapons, we need them too”. It is noteworthy that this 2014 figure is up from the 68 per cent who held such views in 2013. Additionally, two-thirds of Iranians assert that they are willing to pay the price in sanctions and isolation to continue advancing their nuclear programme.

Even with this apparent defiance, the recent ZRS study suggests that all is not well within Iran. When we asked Iranians if they were better off or worse off than they were five years ago, only 34 per cent said better off, against 36 per cent who maintained that they were worse off. And in response to most questions about the performance of the Rouhani government, nearly one-half of all Iranians expressed some discontent with their president’s policies in expanding employment opportunities, protecting personal and civil rights, and reforming the government. Ironically, the one area where Iranians gave Rouhani his highest performance score was in “improving relations with Arab neighbours”.

With this worrisome divide in attitudes and perceptions as a backdrop, it is no wonder that the lack of transparency in the P5+1 talks and leaks of private correspondence between the US and Iran has only served to aggravate Arab fears. As we have long maintained, opinions do matter and not only in Israel and the US. In this era where riled publics are reshaping the politics of the Middle East, the opinions of Arabs and Iranians must be considered as well. Arabs should be reassured that their concerns are understood by the West. At the same time, the Iranian public needs to see the linkage between their economic woes and their government’s nuclear ambitions and foreign policy.

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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