A new poll of Arab opinion finds that for the first time a majority of the public across the region – including a sizable minority in Saudi Arabia – believes a nuclear-armed Iran would be a positive development in the Middle East.
The portion of the Arab population thinking that way has doubled since a similar survey a year ago, in part because of huge majorities this year in Egypt and Morocco. Egypt, which makes up a quarter of the Arab world, was not in last year’s survey.
The findings, however, say less about a change in Arab opinions of Iran than they do about a change in opinions about another country, say the organizers of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll: Arabs have soured on the United States of Barack Obama.
The poll finds that Arabs have traded in last year’s “wait-and-see” attitude toward the new American president in favor of something much more negative, and the support for Iran is, in many ways, being seen as one part of that anger.
“What this poll reveals is a backlash against the United States, reflecting the loss of hope that people had in what they thought were to be the policies of the new President Obama,” says Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland Middle East expert, who conducted the poll with the polling firm Zogby International. “It’s really people venting by supporting ‘the enemy of my enemy.’”
This year’s poll finds that large majorities of Arabs list the United States and Israel as the region’s worst enemies, far above Iran. The US returns to one of the top rungs of the “enemies list” after having been judged positively by a small majority of Arabs last year, a shift from past years that Mr. Telhami qualifies as nothing short of “amazing” given longstanding Arab views of the US.
In 2009, 51 percent of the public was “optimistic” about the US. This year, nearly two-thirds say they are “discouraged” about America’s actions in the region.
The specific reasons for the shift: disappointment over the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a perception of little change in US Iraq policy.
Describing a “triangulation” of Arab opinion, Telhami says, “Arab views of the US are formed largely through the prism of the Arab-Israeli issue. And Arab views of Iran are very much the function of views of the US and prospects for peace in the Middle East.”
When asked to name two countries they see posing the biggest threat to their country, 77 percent named the US (second only to Israel) while Iran was named by 10 percent – down from 13 percent last year. At the same time, however, majorities in several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and 52 percent in Saudi Arabia, say it would be “mostly negative” if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons.
Still, this image of an Iran of little overall threat to the region contrasts starkly with the view advanced by US officials that Arab countries fear the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
That US perspective is more the result of positions diplomats hear from Arab leaders who are not always in synch with their publics, Telhami says. “Arab governments are more worried about the prospects of a nuclear Iran than the publics are,” he says.
Still, the poll does not reveal any surging support for Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does move up slightly in the estimation of Arabs, but his small rise as an “admired” leader is nothing compared to that of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rode his reputation for standing up to Israel (and the United States) to take the top spot in the “admired leader” category.