The Middle East Channel

Is that what Arabs really think about Iran?

David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued Thursday that public opinion surveys suggest that Arab discontent with Barack Obama has not led them to embrace Iran or its nuclear program. In that article, Pollock takes issue with the findings of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which I direct and which ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued Thursday that public opinion surveys suggest that Arab discontent with Barack Obama has not led them to embrace Iran or its nuclear program. In that article, Pollock takes issue with the findings of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which I direct and which is carried out by Zogby International. In the original version of the article (which appeared unintentionally due to an editorial mistake), he claimed that I had argued "that Arab leaders are increasingly taking Iranian leaders at their word that they are only developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes." This language was subsequently changed to read that I claimed that Arab opinion is "shifting toward a positive perception of Iran's nuclear program." The original claim was a clear misrepresentation of my argument and of the findings of poll findings. Even the revised version fails to accurately reflect the poll results, the trend in Arab public opinion, or the reasons for the change.

First, the poll is not about Arab leaders but about public opinion in six Arab countries. More centrally, what I said about the attitudes of Arabs polled on this issue is exactly the opposite of what Pollock claimed. Here is what I wrote in my article on this issue in the Los Angeles Times: "According to our polling, a majority of Arabs do not believe Iran's claim that it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program." In fact, in the 2010 poll, 57 percent of those polled in the six countries indicated that they believed Iran is indeed trying to acquire nuclear weapons-nearly identical to last year's results.

David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued Thursday that public opinion surveys suggest that Arab discontent with Barack Obama has not led them to embrace Iran or its nuclear program. In that article, Pollock takes issue with the findings of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which I direct and which is carried out by Zogby International. In the original version of the article (which appeared unintentionally due to an editorial mistake), he claimed that I had argued "that Arab leaders are increasingly taking Iranian leaders at their word that they are only developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes." This language was subsequently changed to read that I claimed that Arab opinion is "shifting toward a positive perception of Iran’s nuclear program." The original claim was a clear misrepresentation of my argument and of the findings of poll findings. Even the revised version fails to accurately reflect the poll results, the trend in Arab public opinion, or the reasons for the change.

First, the poll is not about Arab leaders but about public opinion in six Arab countries. More centrally, what I said about the attitudes of Arabs polled on this issue is exactly the opposite of what Pollock claimed. Here is what I wrote in my article on this issue in the Los Angeles Times: "According to our polling, a majority of Arabs do not believe Iran’s claim that it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program." In fact, in the 2010 poll, 57 percent of those polled in the six countries indicated that they believed Iran is indeed trying to acquire nuclear weapons-nearly identical to last year’s results.

The most striking aspect of the 2010 poll on the issue of Iran is the increase in the percentage of people polled who now say that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, that would be a positive development for the Middle East. I was careful to say that there was variation on this from country to country, with countries in close proximity to Iran feeling more vulnerable and with Egypt in particular experiencing a big shift from last year. On the face of it, this particular finding seems to be at variance with other poll findings, notably Pew, whose polling results have usually been close to Zogby results on issues where the questions are nearly identical (such as attitudes toward the United States). I take other polls seriously and constantly try to compare results and analyze differences where they occur. Although Pollock refers to similar questions, we all know that variation in questions can cause big differences in responses, which is why our polling project was designed from the outset to be a multi-year project to allow comparison of same-question variations over time in the same countries. We therefore get an indication of change from year to year on same questions.

There is one big reason why the Pew poll, or any other, could have quite different responses, especially in Egypt, even with the same question: timing. Although the Pew poll release timing was close to the release of the Zogby poll, the polls were in fact taken more than three months apart. The Pew poll was conducted from April 12 through May 3, while the Zogby poll was conducted from June 29 through July 20.

What happened in between? The Gaza Flotilla incident, which significantly affected public attitudes on a number of related issues. And it is not a surprise that anything related to Gaza would have more impact in Egypt than elsewhere in the Arab world given its proximity and the fact that Egypt controlled it from 1948-1967. In addition, there was also increased talk about a proposal for a nuclear free zone in Middle East which highlighted Israel’s nuclear program, through a campaign led by Egypt and the Arab League, which is headquartered in Cairo. On May 28, there was a seeming breakthrough when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference called for taking up the issue of creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East in 2012, in a move supported by the Arabs states, the U.S. — and Iran. Israel, which is not a signatory to the treaty, was concerned, and there were subsequent reports that the U.S. was having second thoughts about favoring the move. A good part of the Arab public’s attitudes towards Iran’s program is a function of the constant "double standard" argument one hears in the Arab world. My own sense is that if I were to give respondents the option of choosing elimination of all nuclear weapons, including Israel’s, and preventing any state from acquiring them in the future, there is a good chance that a majority of Arabs polled would support that. So the events between May and July 2010 likely had a substantial impact on public attitudes on this issue. In fact, it would be surprising if they had not.

Finally, there is no poll finding that Arabs have a positive view of Iran. In fact, as I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Most Arabs have no love for Iran, and many see the country as a significant threat. But the Arab public does not see Iran as the biggest danger in the region." So if there had been a direct question about views of Iran I would expect the views would have been negative. The point is clear: Arab public attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program are not out of love or admiration for Iran, but are more a function of anger over other issues. Moreover, there is a clear difference between public attitudes (measured through polls) and government attitudes on Iran, with governments viewing Iran more as a threat, but even here, the sources of government fears also vary from country to country depending on their proximity to Iran.

The central thrust of the findings on Iran is that Arab public attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program are in good part a function of their views toward Israel and the U.S. Certainly these attitudes vary from country to country based on proximity to Iran and the Sunni-Shiite divide and old Arab-Persian divide. But when Arabs in the six countries studied are asked to identify in an open question the two counties that pose the biggest threat to them, the vast majority of those polled identify Israel first, the United States second, and Iran third-by far. That’s the dynamic from which Iran benefits. The surest way to isolate Iran among the Arab public is to successfully mediate lasting Arab-Israeli peace.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the principal investigator of the annual Arab Public Opinion Poll carried out by Zogby International.

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami

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