Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, presented his findings based on polling he conducted in the Middle East from 2010 to 2012 on Arab perspectives on Iran’s rising role in the Middle East after the Arab uprisings. This meeting was the second of a series of five joint meetings with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) assessing the new dynamics reshaping the Middle East.
On February 21, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and USIP hosted a discussion, “Arab Perspectives on Iran’s Role in a Changing Middle East” with Telhami, who is a leading expert and commentator on international politics and Middle Eastern affairs, and Michele Dunne, the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Telhami structured his discussion of his polling data and findings around three main points: public attitudes in the Sunni-Shi’a divide; the differences in attitudes toward Iran among Arab governments; and the Iranian threat as perceived in the Arab States that took part in the polling, due to Iran's influence and power.
Telhami stated that there is only a clear Sunni-Shi’a divide among the countries whose populations include substantial Shi’a communities such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. This divide is trumped, however, by other concerns when it comes to public opinion attitudes toward Iran. In the six Arab countries where he conducted polls—Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon—Iran consistently ranked third when asked to identify the “two most threatening states,” while Israel and the United States always rank first and second, respectively. According to Telhami, there is a difference between public and government attitudes toward Iran in the Arab world, and, while the Arab states themselves diverge on the level of threat posed by Iran, this threat is still substantially different and less than the perceived threat from Israel or the United States. However, about two-thirds of those polled did not oppose Iran’s nuclear program as they perceive a “double standard” in the region. Moreover, in spite of Sunni and Shi’a differences, Iran remains generally respected in Arab public opinion for its opposition to Israel and support of the resistance carried out by Hamas and Hezbollah—though Telhami emphasized they do not want Iranian interference in their affairs nor the spread of Shiism in their societies. Telhami added that despite their points of contention, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate to the presidency had potentially served to ameliorated Egyptian-Iranian relations due in part to mutual support for Hamas.
Telhami then pointed out that it is Iran’s “projection of power” which is driving the mechanism of fear for the Arabs, particularly among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. They fear Iran’s conventional influence over their Arab populations. These same Arab countries have consequently little interest in Iran’s reintegration into the international community as it would strengthen its influence. Therefore, Telhami argued that it is in the Gulf countries’ interests to have a sustained policy of containment of Iran.
In conclusion, Dunne commented that while she agrees with Telhami’s assessments that Arab attitudes toward Iran are complex and shaped by the depth of the Sunni/Shia divide, Iran’s support of the Assad regime in Syria is a much bigger factor in Arab opinion. Also, she believes the sentiment has shifted more negatively since Telhami's most recent polling data in May 2012 reflects. Further, she also noted that some of these post-Arab Spring countries have moved past resisting the United States as much as his polling data would indicate. The Syrian crisis is the most influential factor now shaping Arab public opinion of Iran.
By Valérie Guillamo, Middle East Program