Iranian leaders have tried to portray democracy movements in the Arab world as inspired by their 1979 Islamic revolution and predicted that Iran’s regional support would grow as pro- Western dictators fell.
However, a new poll by the Arab American Institute shows approval of Iran’s role in the region plummeting since 2006 and especially since Iran crushed its own democracy movement in 2009.
The results of the poll, taken during the first three weeks of June and released in Washington on Wednesday, are stunning.
In Egypt, where 89 percent had a positive view of Tehran in 2006, only 37 percent do now. In Morocco, Iran’s favourables have plunged from 82 percent to 14 percent; in the United Arab Emirates, from 68 percent to 22 percent; in Saudi Arabia from 85 percent to six percent; and in Jordan from 75 percent to 23 percent. Only in Lebanon, which has a substantial Shiite population, is Iran still popular, with 63 percent approval.
James Zogby, who heads the Institute, said the dramatic shift reflects the widespread Arab view that “Iran is not contributing to peace and stability in the Arab world.”
Five years ago, Tehran benefited from widespread hostility toward George W. Bush and from the perceived victory of Iran’s Lebanese partner, Hezbollah, against Israel in a month-long war.
“In 2006, Iran presented itself as the challenger to Israel and the United States,” Zogby told a news conference. “The region has changed. It has other fish to fry and in this context, Iran is a nuisance.”
In an email, Zogby told IPS that Iran has previously “been able to play off of U.S. bellicosity and blunders” including “widespread outrage at the U.S. for its invasion of Iraq, its standing by while Israel devastated Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and Gaza, again in 2009, and the horrors of Abu Ghraib. Iran was able to turn that region-wide rage to its benefit, especially when the Bush administration and Israel then directed so much hostile rhetoric against the Islamic Republic.”
In contrast, he wrote, President Barack Obama has “somewhat reduced the decibel level of the threats” against Iran as he has become preoccupied with other regional issues including the upheavals in the Arab world and U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
“In the face of all this, Iran’s behaviour is seen by Arab public opinion not as a counter to America’s hostile domination, but as source of instability seeking to exploit troubled areas for its own gain,” Zogby wrote. “Add to this the Iranian regime’s brutal confrontation with the Green Revolution, and whatever positive characteristics frustrated and alienated Arabs once attributed to the regime in Tehran has all but evaporated.”
At the same time that Iran’s approval ratings are in free-fall, the United States and Israel do worse.
Results from the same poll released two weeks ago show that U.S. “interference” in the Arab world and Israel’s continuing occupation of formerly Arab territory are cited as the biggest obstacles to regional peace and stability by substantial margins.
In Morocco, for example, 36 percent cite Israel and 31 percent the U.S. compared to only two percent that say Iranian interference is the biggest threat. The figures for Egypt are 37 percent, 31 percent and seven percent, respectively.
That does not mean that Arabs want Iran to become more powerful. In the new poll, most disapprove of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and said they would prefer Egypt or Turkey to have them if the region were to gain another nuclear weapons state besides Israel.
This contrasts dramatically with a poll just a year ago conducted by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution and the Zogby International polling firm in which 77 percent of respondents said Iran had a right to pursue nuclear weapons and 57 percent said that would be a “positive” development for the Middle East.
There were largely negative views of Iran’s role in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain even though there is little evidence that Iran was behind recent unrest in Bahrain. On the other hand, Saudi military intervention to crush the Bahraini uprising got favourable reviews from all those polled except Lebanon, Jordan and the UAE.
Zogby, at the press conference, said he did not see the results as reflecting Sunni-Shiite enmity so much as resentment of a non-Arab country perceived as seeking regional hegemony – feelings that go back to the time of the Shah and that have waxed and waned since the 1979 revolution.
Anti-Iranian feelings declined during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami – who sought to build bridges to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states – and rose with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s more belligerent policies and with the consolidation of a Shiite government in formerly Sunni-ruled Iraq.
Iran is seen by most Arabs as “a regime attempting to insert itself in Iraq and other countries and to play off regional alienation,” Zogby said. “That act seems to have worn thin.”
*Jim Lobe contributed to this report.