A Shift in Arab Views of Iran

President Obama may have scored a diplomatic win by securing international support for biting sanctions against Iran, but Arab public opinion is moving in a different direction. Polling conducted last month by Zogby and the University of Maryland in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates suggests that views in the region are shifting toward a positive perception of Iran’s nuclear program.

These views present problems for Washington, which has counted on Arabs seeing Iran as a threat — maybe even a bigger one than Israel. So why is Arab public opinion toward Iran shifting?

According to our polling, a majority of Arabs do not believe Iran’s claim that it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. But an overwhelming majority believe that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons and should not be pressured by the international community to curtail its program. Even more telling, a majority of those polled this year say that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the outcome would be positive for the Middle East. In 2009, only 29% of respondents viewed that as a positive.

To be sure, the results varied from country to country, with a significant majority in Egypt viewing a nuclear Iran positively, while a majority in the United Arab Emirates viewed such an outcome negatively. However, the trend in the past year is striking.

The shortest path to understanding this turn in Arab public opinion is to examine Arab views of American foreign policy in the Middle East. In the early months of the Obama administration (spring 2009), our polling found that a remarkable 51% of those surveyed expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East, a stark contrast to nearly a decade of gloom that preceded Obama’s election. A little over a year later, however, the number of optimists had dropped to only 16%, with 63% expressing pessimism. This pessimism, more than any other issue, explains the turn in Arab attitudes toward Iran. Arabs tend to view Iran largely through the prism of American and Israeli policies.