The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab and Muslim Public Opinion. by James Zogby

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1 The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab and Muslim Public Opinion by James Zogby Policy discussions here in the U.S. about Iran and its nuclear program most often focus exclusively on Israeli concerns. Ignored are Arab and Muslim attitudes, especially those of Iran s Arab and non-arab Muslim neighbors. It is known that several Arab governments have problems with the Islamic Republic in Tehran, but what of their publics? Over the past decade, we have been polling regional attitudes toward Iran and its policies culminating at the end of 12 with a survey of, citizens in 17 Arab countries and three non-arab Muslim countries (,, and ). This nation poll covered a range of topics including: attitudes toward Iran, its people, culture, and its nuclear program. Comparing our most recent findings (compiled in my new ebook Looking at Iran: Iran s Rise and Fall in Public Opinion ) to the data from our earlier surveys in the region reveals important and dramatic changes in Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Iran. It also helps to identify factors that appear to serve as drivers behind these changes. For example, when we polled on many of these same issues in 6, Iran s favorable ratings in Arab and Muslim countries were at their highest point. Back then, in most countries, Iran s favorable ratings were in the 75% range (with Saudis giving Iran an 85% rating). Six years later the tables have turned. Now Iran s favorable ratings in these same countries have fallen to less than 25% (Saudi ratings have plummeted to 15%). What emerges from our 11 and 12 polls is that the earlier favorable attitudes toward Iran were not about Iran, per se. Instead they appear to be more a reaction to Arab public opinion s fury at Israel s behavior and U.S. policies in,, and, coupled with the perception that Iran and its allies were standing firm in opposition to the machinations of the West. What changed in 12 is that the United States has lowered its regional profile, while Iran is perceived to be playing a divisive role in,,, and Syria. What also emerges from our 12 survey is the presence of a worrisome sectarian divide that has taken hold in several countries, with Sunni attitudes largely opposing Iran and its regional policies, and Shia communities in many of these same countries expressing support for Iran. There is a growing consensus among both Sunni and Shia Muslims that Iran and its policies are contributing to this sectarian rift. There is, however, a limit to Iran s appeal in the Arab World and that is the result of the important role that Arab culture and identity play as unifying factors in shaping attitudes across sectarian lines. There was a time, just a few years ago, when favorable Arab public opinion of Iran in some countries stood poles apart from the positions of their governments with respect to Iran and its policies. Some observers made much of this, suggesting that the concerns with Iran s policies expressed by Arab governments were out of touch with their publics. That may have been true in 6, but after Iran and its allies overplayed their hands in several countries (with Syria being the nail in the coffin majorities in 17 of the countries covered in our 12 survey oppose Iran s involvement in Syria), that gap has now been erased. Most Arabs and Muslims now hold decidedly negative views of Iran and are solidly opposed to Iran s regional ambitions. The same is true of Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Iran s nuclear program. Back in 6, when Iran was seen as the bastion of resistance to the West, their nuclear ambitions were supported and defended by majorities in most countries. Our earlier polls show Arab and Muslim public opinion supporting Iran s claim that the program was for peaceful purposes. Whether peaceful or not, strong majorities in almost every country were opposed to any international effort to impose sanctions or use military means against the Islamic Republic. Today, there is virtually no support for Iran s nuclear ambitions with majorities now believing that Tehran has designs on producing a nuclear weapon. And sympathy for Iran has been replaced by widespread support for sanctions to stop Iran should it persist in advancing its nuclear program. Opposition to the use of military force remains high, with strong majorities still against it. But here too there has been a change, with some increase in the number of those who now support the use of a military strike should Iran persist with its nuclear program. The lesson is clear. When Iran was seen in the Arab and Muslim Worlds through the prism of U.S. and Israeli practices, it won. But when Iran is judged by its regional behavior and its domestic repression, it loses support in Arab and Muslim public opinion.

2 Policy Implications of Iran s Fall from Favor in Arab and Muslim Public Opinion by James Zogby In Looking at Iran: Iran s Rise and Fall in Public Opinion, I detail the dramatic shifts that have occurred in Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Iran, its regional policies and its nuclear program. Once viewed positively by sizable majorities in almost every country across the region, Iran has experienced a precipitous decline in its favorable ratings. The change, it appears from my findings, is largely due to concerns with Iran s policies in, Syria, and the Arab Gulf region. At the same time, I observe a worrisome sectarian divide that has opened up between Sunni and Shia Muslims in several countries, most notably in Saudi Arabia,,,, and. Majorities point to Iranian policies as the cause. But local grievances and violent acts perpetrated by sect-based extremist groups have also played a significant role in aggravating tensions. The effect of the divide is somewhat muted, but definitely not erased, by ethnicity and cultural issues, which still define the identities of most Arabs and Muslims. Iran s nuclear program was once strongly supported throughout the region by the general public, though not necessarily by their governments. Now it is a subject of concern in most countries. Just six years ago, most Arabs and Muslims were willing to defend Iran against international pressure, now they want the international community to do something to rein in Iran s ambitions. Sanctions against Iran, once strongly opposed, are now supported by a majority of Arabs and Muslims in most countries. While there is an uptick in support for military action against Iran, should it persist in its nuclear program, majorities in almost all countries remain opposed to this option. Finally, the United States has experienced a slight improvement in its favorable ratings in Arab opinion and, more importantly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Arabs and Muslims who now see (or hope to see) the United States playing a positive role in promoting peace and stability in the region. This has been due, in part, to the U.S. s lower profile and less aggressive posture in the region, and renewed expectation that in a second term Barack Obama may fulfill the hopes Arabs and Muslims had for his presidency. Arab and Muslim public opinion remains in flux and regional sensitivities remain high. Given this volatile setting, policy makers should consider options carefully. Iran should recognize its current regional isolation and the precariousness of its position and not overplay its hand. In the past, their defiant behavior might have won support from an appreciative regional audience. Now it is seen as threatening and unsettling provocation. Governments in the region should address the domestic concerns and coordinate policies to rein in the extremist groups that are fueling sectarian discontent and alienation, creating fertile ground that is exploited by both Iran and its allies, and Sunni sectarian terrorist groups. Israel should be pressed to address and resolve the matter of long-denied Palestinian rights. Should the Palestinian situation explode in renewed violence and massive repression, and should the United States, as expected, side with Israel, this could inflame regional passions reopening a door that Iran had closed on itself. In this context, it is important to consider that the new governments in Arab Spring countries are less able to control angry protests. The attack on Israel s embassy in and repeated raids on the U.S. Embassy next to Tahrir Square are clear examples. The United States should recognize the benefits that have accrued from its lower profile and its effort to work with allies by leading from behind. Should the United States change course and either resume a belligerent posture or take unsupported and unpopular unilateral military action against Iran, this might only serve to refocus the region s attention away from Iran s meddlesome behaviors. Regional attitudes could once again shift in Iran s favor. Finally, all parties should consider the wisdom of bellicose threats and suggestions of military action. This applies to the United States, Israel, and Iran. These only exacerbate tensions and deepen regional divides. They also play into the hands of those in Iran who have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to turn threats (or an actual attack, should it come to that) into an increase in support across the region. All of this has some important policy implications, which should be considered:

3 Iran s Favorable Ratings 6 11 IRAN S FAVORABLE RATINGS 1 9 ** Attitude Toward Iran (12) ATTITUDE TOWARD IRAN (12) Unfavorable Favorable

4 Iran s Role in (12) Negative Positive Iran s Role in Syria (12) IRAN S ROLE IN SYRIA (12) Negative Positive

5 Iran s Nuclear Objectives (12) Nuclear Weapons Peaceful Purposes Support for Sanctions (6 vs. 12) COMPARING SUPPORT FOR SANCTIONS (6 AND 12)

6 Military Action Against Iran (12) MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAN (12) Oppose Support Attitudes Toward Iran by Sect (12) FAVORABLE ATTITUDES TOWARDS IRAN BY SECT (12) 1 KUWAIT Sunni Shia 1 YEMEN 1 BAHRAIN Sunni Shia 1 TURKEY 1 Sunni Shia 1 PAKISTAN Sunni Shia Sunni Shia Sunni Shia

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