Project On Middle East Democracy

Posted by Project On Middle East Democracy on March 06, 2013 in News Clips

On Tuesday, March 5, the Wilson Center hosted an event centered on the publication of the e-book Looking at Iran: How 20 Arab & Muslim Nations View Iran and Its Policies by Zogby Research Services.  James Zogby laid out his findings in a keynote address, and then participated in a panel discussion with Tom Gjelten, Haleh Esfandiari, Hisham Melhem, Barbara Slavin, and Marc Lynch.  The panel delved into Iran’s declining popularity among citizens around the Middle East, focusing on historical trends, sectarianism, and shifting geopolitics.

For full event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.

Zogby’s poll included more than 20,000 face-to-face interviews in Turkey, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and seventeen Arab countries in October and November 2012.  He found a dramatic decrease in favorable ratings of Iran since 2006, declining from about 75% to less than 25% on average.  Respondents in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and Libya maintained a positive outlook of Iran, while only Iraqis and Lebanese held favorable opinions of Iranian policy toward Bahrain and Syria.  Iran’s nuclear ambitions are now recognized by a majority of citizens in the region, and a majority support sanctions against Iran (a change from 2006).  Only Turkey’s citizens hold a robust majority opinion that the US does not contribute to regional stability, while moderate majorities of Lebanese and Iraqis also hold this opinion.

Following Dr. Zogby’s presentation, the panel sought to explain the developments in Iranian popularity.  Iran’s efforts to win the Arab Street were at a high point in 2006 amidst turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon.  Thus, Melhem and Slavin argued that the 2006 polls were an outlier.  Slavin said that in the past Iran was viewed as more democratic than the autocratic Arab states, but crackdowns on protests in 2009, Iran’s response to the Arab Spring in 2011, and Iran’s Syria policy have all eroded Iran’s popularity.  Gjelten noted that while Iran used to be popular with Arab citizens and unpopular with their governments, Tehran is now making overtures to Arab governments as their public popularity wanes.

Lynch observed that this polling data should not be misconstrued for a “green light for military action.”  Zogby suggested that Washington’s approach of leading from behind has stolen Iran’s leverage as the state willing to stand up to the US.  Similarly, Turkey’s rise has impinged upon Iran’s popularity.

Zogby’s data also showed tremendous gaps in opinion of Iran within countries along sectarian divisions.  This prompted Melhem to observe that “the Sunni-Shi’a divide is the worst I’ve seen in my life.”  Lynch was similarly alarmed, although he argued that Gulf media is partly responsible for driving the tension by coloring Iran as Shi’a in an effort to isolate it politically.  Esfaniari agreed, saying that it is a mistake to think that Iran plays up sectarian issues; Tehran’s official statements rarely distinguish between Sunnis and Shi’as, and Ayatollah Khamenei aims to be a leader of the entire umma.

Esfandiari, asked by an audience member what Iran might do to improve its standing, implied that Tehran will likely exaggerate its popularity rather than actually change its policies.  In response to audience skepticism that Arabs view US leadership positively, Lynch explained that US leadership is popular when US policy coalesces with Arabs’ own policy preferences, unpopular when it does not, but US leadership is not in and of itself divisive.

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