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 U.S. intentions and worried that their concerns with 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 U.S.. But how are Iran and its nuclear program seen across 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 Center for Strategic and International Studies. The results shed light on the deep policy divide that exists between Iran and its neighbors 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 favor 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 toward 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 American invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran received high favorable 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 fueling 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 Assad government in Syria that became "the nail in the coffin" of Iran's standing in Arab public opinion.
In 2008, Iran had high favorable ratings in the 70 percent to 80 percent 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 neighbor 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 percent to 88% percent of Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis responded in the negative. Even 57 percent 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 percent 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 percent), Syria (72 percent), Lebanon (68 percent), Bahrain (58 percent) and Yemen (52 percent).
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 that they did not have good relations with Iran, nor did they desire an improvement in relations.
With regard to Iran's nuclear program, 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 program."
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 percent 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 percent who held such views in 2013. Additionally, two-thirds of Iranians assert that they were willing to pay the price in sanctions and isolation to continue advancing their nuclear program.
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 percent said better off, against 36 percent 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 neighbors."
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 U.S. and Iran have only served to aggravate Arab fears. As we have long maintained, opinions do matter and not only in Israel and the U.S. 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.
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