Posted by on May 05, 2013 in News Clips

Policy discussions here in the U.S. about Iran and its nuclear program most often focus exclusively on Israeli concerns. But Americans and Israelis are not the only ones unnerved by Iran’s role in the Middle East. Recently, I conducted extensive polling in the Arab and Muslim world and the results have important implications for the future of U.S. policy toward this vital region.

In a new eBook, “Looking at Iran: Iran’s Rise and Fall in Public Opinion,” I explore the way that perceptions of Iran in 17 Arab countries and three non-Arab Muslim countries have been reshaped by the events of the last few years. While we annually measure overall Arab attitudes toward Iran, the last time we conducted an in-depth examination of Arab views of the Islamic Republic was in 2006. Back then, the region was a vastly different place. Iran’s favorable ratings were more than 75% in most countries surveyed. Now, however, the numbers tell a much different story. Iran enjoys majority support in only one Arab country (Lebanon), and its favorable ratings have plummeted in countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. How can we explain this precipitous decline, and what lessons should American policymakers take from it?

The reasons for Iran’s rise in the middle of the last decade and its fall in the last few years are two sides of the same coin. Our data indicates that Iran’s popularity circa 2006 was primarily a reaction to American policy in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq and American support for Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006 enraged Arab publics, and Iran seemed to be the only country willing to resist American hegemony. As such, it enjoyed enormous rewards in public opinion.

But as the U.S. has lowered its regional profile, withdrawing troops from Iraq, working collaboratively with allies in Libya, and refusing to become directly engaged in Syria, Iran has seen the grievances that drove its popularity recede from Arab minds. In this way, the strategy of “leading from behind,” so gleefully derided by President Barack Obama’s Republican opponents, has actually helped to erode Iran’s standing in the Arab world and raise that of the U.S. The president’s outreach to Arab and Muslim publics, exemplified by his 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, has also helped improve perceptions of America at the expense of Iran.

Iran’s decline has been driven by the growth of a worrisome sectarian divide in the region. In 2006, even respondents in largely Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt professed admiration for Iran’s brash president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he thumbed his nose at the West. Since then, however, many Arabs have come to see Iran as playing a meddlesome and divisive role in the region. Its policies in Iraq and especially Syria have alienated many Arabs, contributing to the precipitous decline of Iranian approval ratings in most countries. Syria has represented the final straw in this respect.

So, what does all this mean for American policy? The good news is that Arab distrust of Iran’s role in the region extends to its nuclear program. Clear majorities in most Arab countries believe Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon and oppose the Iranian nuclear program. However, opposition to military action remains quite high. Given this knowledge, American officials should combine pressure with efforts to engage Iran, coordinating with Arab and European allies while rejecting calls from Israel and certain quarters of the U.S. for military action to halt Iran’s nuclear development.

Obama should also continue his policy of “leading from behind,” though it might do with a better name. American efforts to tone down our rhetoric and lower our profile in the region have paid real dividends, allowing Arab publics to evaluate Iran based on their actions, rather than their anti-American rhetoric. In this spirit, the administration should press Israel to address the matter of long-denied Palestinian rights. An equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would neutralize the biggest cause of anti-Americanism among Arab publics. The quickest way to reverse these gains in public opinion would be to involve ourselves in another conflict in the Middle East, whether in Iran, Syria or elsewhere. Such commitments, and rhetoric that could draw us into them, should be avoided.

Above all, our polling provides one vital insight. When Iran is viewed as defiantly standing up to Western overreach, it gains influence in the Arab world. However, when the Islamic Republic is evaluated on its own behavior, Arab publics turn against it. The best thing we can do is continue along our current course of allowing the Iranians to wear out their welcome.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

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