Posted by on March 08, 2013 in Blog

As recently as five years ago, many Americans were lead to believe that war with Iran was inevitable. Polling showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans would have preferred to keep the US out of more military entanglements, but the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush Administration and some members of Congress seemed to imply that the country was priming itself for a military confrontation like the one that led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. With administration officials ratcheting up the rhetoric, the implication was that Iran could only be handled with the brute force of military intervention.

AAI’s polling at the time showed that Washington’s war drums did not translate to support on the Arab street. On the contrary, Arab approval ratings of the Iranian state were at an all-time high, as Iran was able to portray itself as a leader in the resistance to US interests in the region. Though Arab governments feared Iranian regional ambitions and nuclear development, their citizens cheered Iranian support for Lebanon during the 2006 invasion, and its criticism of US ambitions in Iraq. In the juxtaposition between US interests and Iranian ambitions, Arabs sided with the latter.

But in the intervening years since AAI’s 2009 poll, American foreign policy toward Iran has undergone a marked shift in its approach. Zogby Research's new “Looking at Iran” poll definitively shows that the Obama administration’s policy of “leading from behind,” working with regional partners, and tamping down on bombastic and threatening rhetoric have led to a significant boost in Arab approval ratings of the US, but also to a commensurate drop in approval ratings for Iran. In Arab eyes, the juxtaposition was no longer between the US and Iran, but between Iran and other regional players, such as the Syrian opposition, and the many competing factions in Iraq. In this frame, opposition to Iran has grown significantly.

However, many members of Congress have refused to evolve from the failed Bush-era approach. As of last week, the House and Senate are both considering bills (H.R.850 and S.RES.65) that would push the US closer to war with Iran, by setting definitive triggers for military intervention and effectively relinquishing their own ability to control the timing and nature of our involvement in a future war. This is a dangerous development for the Iranian people, an irresponsible abrogation of authority for US policymakers, and a counterproductive policy for the people of the region.

These actions also provide a cautionary note. Continuing to push for direct military intervention, and speaking of Iran only in terms of US and Israeli strategic interests, not only undermines the President’s approach, but also bolsters Iran’s only regional strength: its perceived resistance to the West.

The Zogby Research poll contains valuable lessons on American foreign policy in the Middle East, and the best way to leverage Arab opinions to counter Iran's regional ambitions. A smarter diplomatic approach can ensure that we do not find ourselves dealing with another Iraq scenario ten years later. 

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