Op-Ed

Seeing Iran Through an American Prism

Shibley Telhami

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent an 18-page letter to President Bush – the first such communication between leaders of the two countries since the 1979 Iranian revolution – the United States was only one of the intended audiences.

It has been clear for some time that Iran sees a significant international audience, especially in the Muslim world, where it seeks to exploit prevalent resentment of U.S. foreign policy. The positive popular reception that Mr. Ahmadinejad received in his visit to Indonesia is just one indication. The most remarkable outcome has been in the Arab world.

Historically, many Arabs have had a competitive, often hostile relationship with Iran. When Iraq started a war against Iran in 1980, even many of Saddam Hussein’s opponents in the Persian Gulf rallied behind him for fear of the impact of the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Small states such as the United Arab Emirates have had serious issues with Iran, including Iranian control of three islands in the gulf that the UAE claims as its own.

Mr. Hussein, who had been an ally of the Soviet Union, was willing to reach out to the United States for help to overcome his Iranian enemy. And one of the Arab fears expressed before the 2003 Iraq war was that the weakening of Iraq would establish Iran as the dominant power in the gulf.

Finally, the emergence of sectarianism in Iraq, with a Shiite-dominated government, many of whose leaders have had good relations with Iran, has generated additional concerns.

All this could lead one to believe that Arabs generally, and governments particularly, are itching for the international community to pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program and might even favor a U.S. campaign to weaken Iran’s potential. Yet the opposite seems to have happened.

An online, unscientific survey by Al-Jazeera television among 36,000 Arabic speakers indicated that 73 percent did not believe that Iran’s nuclear program constituted a threat to the neighboring countries.

In my own public opinion survey with Zogby International in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE in October, a plurality of Arabs said they believed that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Yet a majority did not support international pressure to make Iran halt its program.

These attitudes are reflected on other issues involving Iran. Asked about the greatest fears regarding the consequences of the Iraq war, only 4 percent of Arabs in my poll indicated concern over Iran’s rising power. The public expressed more worries about the potential for Iraq’s division and for the continued U.S. presence in Iraq.

To be sure, Arab governments, especially those in the Persian Gulf region, remain concerned about the rising Iranian influence and worried about the intensifying Shiite-Sunni divide. But even those governments are more concerned about the prospect of another war with Iran that would create ongoing instability, which would add to Iraq’s troubles.

Some, such as the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, are chiefly made up of cities on the gulf within easy range of Iran’s weapons. They would lose much from a war between the United States and Iran.

As an English-language Saudi newspaper, Arab News, put it in arguing that Washington should not reject Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter so hastily: “Washington may well maneuver itself into a corner where, to save face and prevent Iran from gaining a great political victory, it will have to take military action. It happened in Iraq and could happen again. The world cannot bear another such tragedy.”

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In the end, the Iranian president’s letter succeeded in framing Iran’s predicament as one primarily related to the United States. In this regard, the continued deep resentment of the United States in much of the world, especially in Arab and Muslim countries – which has intensified with recent economic pressures on the Palestinians – plays directly into Mr. Ahmadinejad’s hands.

When asked in the October survey to identify the two countries that are most threatening to them, most Arabs named the United States and Israel; only 6 percent named Iran. This, more than anything else, highlights Washington’s challenge in garnering support for its policy toward Iran.