Marc Lynch

Tehran Tanking

Iran's popularity in the Arab world is way down, but sectarianism is on the rise.

Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images

Iran is now viewed unfavorably in a majority of Arab countries, according to a major new survey conducted by James Zogby of 20 Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Iran’s appeal to mainstream Arab public opinion has virtually collapsed from its 2006 peak, he found, in part because of its violent suppression of protests following the 2009 presidential election. "Syria is the nail in the coffin of Iran’s favorable rating in the region," Zogby concluded.

But concealed within a positive narrative of collapsing Iranian soft power is powerful evidence of the alarming spread, intensification, and consolidation of an extremely dangerous sectarianism. That sectarianism, spurred by the repression in Bahrain and the catastrophe in Syria and fueled by Gulf media, is likely more crucial to the future of the Middle East than the ups and downs in Iranian — or American — favorable ratings.

It’s nothing new to say that sectarianism has spiked over the last two years, after being largely absent in the early heady days of the Arab uprisings. Zogby’s wide-ranging survey offers some fascinating new evidence, however. Public opinion survey research in the Arab world always needs to be treated with caution — sampling is difficult in countries experiencing internal conflict or without accurate census data, while pervasive secret police make honesty a dubious proposition — but it has become far more routinized and professionalized over the last decade. Some of the numbers in this Zogby poll seem a bit questionable: the 84 percent of Lebanese reporting a favorable view of Iran seems difficult to credit, while the results in Libya (80 percent favorable) and Yemen (84 percent favorable) may be shaped by the difficult of doing survey research in near-failed state conditions. But the broader portrait of Arab rejection of Iran and growing sectarianism is consistent with trends in the media, developments on the ground, and the symbolism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad getting socked with a shoe in Cairo.

The major message in the presentation and reporting of the survey has been the narrative of Iranian decline, articulated bluntly by the title of the Wilson Center event where it was launched: The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab and Muslim Eyes. The results of the survey do indeed support that narrative: Only two Arab countries now see Iran as a good model (Lebanon and Iraq), Iran is viewed unfavorably in 11 out of 17 Arab countries, and large majorities of Arab publics sided with the opposition Green Movement over the Iranian government and disapprove of Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf. These findings should put an end to the conceit that Iran is on the march or that Arabs have the slightest interest in aligning with Tehran with or without a nuclear bomb.

This should not be taken as a green light for military action against Tehran, though. While support for a military strike with international legitimacy has grown significantly since 2006 in the polling, there isn’t a majority in favor in any Arab country. A 34-point increase in support for a military strike among Jordanians or a 24-point increase among Egyptians is significant as a trend. But approval of military action doesn’t crack 40 percent in any surveyed country, which is hardly an overwhelming mandate. Indeed, an American or Israeli military strike is probably the only thing that could rescue Iran’s regional image at this point — particularly if the regime is able to emerge with a Hezbollah-like narrative of success through survival.

Iran’s favorability will ebb and flow with political events. But the spreading and entrenched sectarianism revealed in the survey will have far more enduring and profoundly negative implications for the region. And the magnitude of the sectarian divide in the poll’s findings is certainly eye-opening. In Saudi Arabia, 92 percent of Shia reported a favorable view of Iran compared with 0 percent of Sunnis; in Bahrain, 76 percent approved of Iran compared with 4 percent of Sunnis. The same phenomenon appeared in almost every country with a significant Shia population: 82 percent of Shia and 15 percent of Sunni in Iraq, 63 percent to 32 percent in Kuwait, 67 percent to 21 percent in the United Arab Emirates. The same trend could be seen across almost every question asked: Very few Sunnis anywhere, for instance, considered Iran a positive model for development, but 79 percent of Kuwaiti Shia did, along with 72 percent of Bahraini Shia and 89 percent of Iraq Shia.

Syria, which Zogby sees as the nail in the coffin for Iran, demonstrates the importance of this divide. Overall, few Arab populations thought Iran was playing a positive role in Syria: Thirteen percent of Jordanians, 17 percent of Palestinians and Moroccans, 12 percent of Egyptians, 9 percent of Saudis, 39 percent of Bahrainis. Only Lebanon (72 percent — again, difficult to believe) and Iraq (54 percent) reported favorable views of Iran’s role. But again, the sectarian breakdown shows that these views are increasingly shaped by identity: 57 percent of Saudi Shia thought Iran was playing a positive role in the Syria conflict (as opposed to 0 percent of Sunnis), as did 57 percent of Kuwaiti Shia, 73 percent of Bahraini Shia, 76 percent of Iraqi Shia, and 87 percent of Shia in the UAE. What initially looks like a unified Arab public stance toward Syria, and toward Iran more generally, turns into one of stark and intense polarization.

As an aside, the responses on the Iranian government’s repression of the Green Movement in 2009 were fascinating. With three years’ perspective, almost all Arab publics now sided with the Iranian democracy movement: 70 percent in Kuwait, 73 percent in Qatar, 65 percent in Egypt, 62 percent in Tunisia, 62 percent of Saudis. But the Shia divided in interesting ways: 87 percent of Kuwaiti Shia and 62 percent of Saudi Shia supported the Green Movement, but 69 percent of Bahraini Shia and 73 percent of Iraqi Shia sided with the Iranian government.

Arabs are worried about this growing sectarian divide. At least two thirds of respondents said they were concerned about the spread of sectarianism in almost every country surveyed. In many countries the concern was far wider: 100 percent of Lebanese, 97 percent of Iraqis, 87 percent of Jordanians, 89 percent of Palestinians, 85 percent of Yemenis, 82 percent of Saudis, 91 percent of Libyans, 83 percent of Egyptians, 75 percent of Kuwaitis, 74 percent of Bahrainis, 78 percent of Qataris. For many, this alarm over of sectarianism likely reflects a perception of rising Shia power in the region, but the evolving identity politics penetrate far more deeply into local politics as well as regional affairs.

Iran is not the principal driver of this sectarianism, however. Its rising power in the middle of the decade perhaps sparked Sunni fears, but its own rhetoric tends to focus on a generic "resistance" identity and on an "Islamic Awakening" rather than on Shiism’s particulars. Its power grew with the American-led overthrow of its major strategic rivals in Afghanistan and Iraq. The peak of influence in the region probably came in 2006, when Hezbollah flags festooned the streets of (very Sunni) Cairo following its perceived military victory over Israel. From Tehran’s perspective, even where it enjoys support from Shia communities, the less that Shiism is discussed and the more that Arabs focus on "resistance," the better. An Israeli or American attack on Iran or an Israeli war with Hezbollah or Hamas tends to highlight that narrative and thus helps Iran’s image. Less often remarked is how that "resistance" narrative might unfold over the next few years following the fall of the Assad regime, where Iran might seek new support by sponsoring resistance to a Western and Gulf Arab-backed new regime in Damascus.

The media and policies of the Sunni-led Gulf states, on the other hand, tend to focus far more on sectarianism. Saudi-backed media broadcasts an unending diet of anti-Iranian content that slides all too easily into anti-Shia sectarianism. Gulf regimes have consistently found it useful to demonize their domestic challengers as Iranian pawns or as a disloyal fifth column. The crackdown in Bahrain included a media campaign designed to transform the image of a popular movement for democracy and human rights into one of an Iranian-backed Shia campaign; two years of fierce, sectarian repression may have generated a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. The demands of Shia in the Saudi Eastern Province for inclusion and basic human rights are routinely countered with allegations of Iranian meddling as an excuse for blanket policies of religious and political subordination. Such sectarianism has even made inroads into previously well-integrated countries like Kuwait.

Further afield, the same logic dominates. Riyadh views Iraq almost solely through a sectarian lens, refusing to engage seriously with Baghdad under the rule of a prime minister it views as an Iranian agent. It has long been quick to label Yemen’s Houthi movement as Iranian pawns rather than a legitimate local movement. Gulf support for the uprising in Syria, particularly the armed groups, has been explicitly sectarian, with private Saudi funders in particular manifestly keen on a Sunni jihad against what they see as an apostate Shia regime. Sectarianism is also carried by the Saudi-inspired Salafis rising in prominence across North Africa and Egypt, where Salafis recently lashed out at the Muslim Brotherhood government over its diplomatic enagement with Iran. And who could forget the Jordanian king’s "Shia Crescent"?

All this may be useful in the short term for the domestic survival of Gulf regimes or the regional containment of Iran, but it is dangerous and profoundly destablizing in the longer term. It creates self-fulfilling prophecies that can rebound to Iran’s favor — why not take Iranian assistance, angry Shia movements might conclude, if they will be accused of it anyway? Fanning the flames of sectarian hatred might be useful for regimes seeking to browbeat Shia populations into sullen acceptance of their subordination, but virtually guarantees enduring popular discontent and recurrent uprisings. It is difficult to see how the Bahraini monarchy can ever recover its legitimacy with a population it has tortured, repressed, attacked, and sacked with impunity on nakedly sectarian grounds. Fanning the flames of sectarian hatred has even greater potential consequences for violence at a time when many states in the region are struggling to maintain order, and when television and the Internet can quickly spread sectarian messages and incitement to already angry, polarized communities.

The brutality of the Iraqi civil war in the mid-2000s should stand as a sobering reminder of the costs of unbridled sectarianism. The families ripped apart, the communities destroyed, the permanent hatreds and justifiable thirst for revenge, the refugees and displaced who will never return, the eternally dysfunctional politics — these are testament to the price of instrumental sectarianism. An Iraqi delegation to Washington this week led by National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyad made painfully clear how deeply those battles have shaped their worldview: When they look at the Syrian uprising, instead of democratic change, they see the al Qaeda in Iraq, which they have battled for so many years and blame Sunni powers for fueling extremism. The region remains deeply scarred by the fierce sectarian hostility unleashed during the dark days of the Iraqi civil war, when televisions and mosques alike fueled outrage over the massacres and displacement, and when cellphone video of the Sadrist chants during the execution of Saddam Hussein infuriated even Sunnis who hated the fallen Iraqi dictator. The embrace of sectarian imagery by significant portions of the armed insurgency in Syria will likely have similarly long-lasting fallout.

The use of sectarianism to rally Arab opposition to Iran, validate the crackdown in Bahrain, or build support for the rebels in Syria might seem like a useful card to play in a regional cold war against Iran. But the long-term costs are far too high. The United States should not be willing to even tacitly embrace sectarianism on utilitarian grounds. Making the regional cold war against Iran the dominant driver of U.S. policy is short-sighted and self-defeating, and will ultimately undermine any hope of contributing to positive, democratic change across the region. Unfortunately, the temptation to view anti-Shia sentiment as a card against Iran too often wins out in theaters from Yemen to Bahrain to Syria. This undermines the very foundations of equal citizenship and runs deeply against the spirit of Arab democratic transformations. That may be one of its selling points to the rulers of the Gulf, but should be deeply troubling to Washington.

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