A stunning shift of Iran's image in the Arab world

A poll shows Iran's popularity in dramatic decline in several Middle Eastern countries, possibly an indication of the domestically driven political change sweeping across the region.

Pollster James Zogby surveyed Arab public opinion about Iran in June, and released his findings at the end of July. I glanced at the poll when it came out, intended to write something about it and then forgot about it.

It came to mind again today because of a small piece I wrote about Iraq this morning, in which I included a statement from senators Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham predicting that Iran's influence in Iraq will skyrocket in response to a withdrawal of most US troops from that country (which looks increasingly likely). I also came across a story in the Wall Street Journal yesterday which, citing unnamed officials, says US officers are seeking authority to conduct "covert operations to thwart Iranian influence" in Iraq.

What Mr. Zogby found was a stunning reversal in Iran's general popularity among six Arab nations of the region. Five years ago, Iran and Hezbollah – the Shiite militant group that has become a major political power in Lebanon – were on a high, symbols of resistance to the US and foreign occupation in the region. But with the US drawdown in Iraq, the domestically driven political change sweeping countries like Egypt and Libya, and Iran's own brutality against domestic democracy activists, Iran's ability to exert soft power in the region has clearly taken a beating.

Asked if Iran plays a positive or negative role in the region, large majorities in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates said "positive" five years ago. In the latest poll, those numbers were almost exactly reversed. In Morocco, Iran dropped from an 82 percent "positive" rating in 2006, to an 85 percent "negative" rating today. In Egypt, the shift was from 89 percent positive to 63 percent negative. In Saudi Arabia, it went from 85 percent positive to 80 percent negative, and in the UAE it went from 68 percent positive to 70 percent negative.

Only in Lebanon itself, which has a large Shiite population, did Iran retain a positive rating, down from 71 percent positive last time around to 63 percent now.

I don't think the declining US military role in Iraq and decline in support for Iran are disconnected. With the near disappearance of the US military fighting in Iraq from regional front pages, attention has refocused on Iran's treatment of its own people. Supporters of the uprising that threw Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt can look across at Iran's own Green Movement, for the moment largely squashed by repressive government measures, and draw a line between Mr. Mubarak and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

What does this mean in practical terms? I'm not really sure. Iranian political influence in its neighbor Iraq is a current fact of life. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki received support from Iran while he was fighting Saddam Hussein from exile and is close to Tehran, as are other Shiite and Kurdish political figures in Iraq. Polling of attitudes in countries like Egypt aren't going to change Iran's views of what's in its own best interests, and creating an alliance with Iraq – with which it fought a mutually ruinous war in the 1980s, has got to be near the top of the list.

When I was living in Egypt and Baghdad, I remember much worry about the growing popularity of Iran in diplomatic circles. It's worth noting that now Arab publics are demanding and receiving a stronger voice inside their own countries, and that the tide of opinion in Iran's favor appears to have completely reversed.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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