The image of Iran in the Arab public mind has changed during the past three decades. Its popularity has declined on the Arab street, albeit for reasons that have nothing to do with the concerns of Israel and western powers. It would be a mistake to depict the widespread Arab concerns over Iran as an act of support for an Israeli or American war against it.
When the Islamic revolution began in 1979 under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, it aroused considerable admiration on the Arab street. It presented a model of organised popular action that deposed one of the region’s most tyrannical regimes. The people of the region discerned in this revolution new hope for freedom and change. The Arab street embraced the revolution without any particular unease about its sectarian or ethnic dimensions.
The majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslims and the majority of Iranians are Shia. Although the Shia dimension was present in the revolution from the very first day, the majority of Arabs did not worry about that. Indeed, when the war between Iraq and Iran began in 1980, a significant segment of the Arab street continued in its positive outlook towards Iran, even though it was fighting with an Arab country.
Iran’s popularity grew markedly because of its support for the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance at a time when many Arabs felt their own regimes had abdicated their duties towards Palestine. In fact, during the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, the two most popular figures in Sunni Cairo were Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Relations between Iran and Arab public opinion took a decisive turn with the bloody events that engulfed Iraq in 2005. Arabs generally were horrified by the widespread sectarian violence. Some accused Iran of igniting the situation further by training and arming the Shia militias, who were reported to have committed serious atrocities against the Sunnis in Iraq. These events triggered a wave of anger at Iran in most parts of the Arab world. It even spread to the North African countries, which had never had any sectarian interaction with the Islamic Republic.
A distinct strategy
For its part, Iran recognised that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein presented a rare opportunity to exert its political influence over one of the strongest and richest countries in the region. It quickly adopted a distinct strategy towards the whole region, whose strategic balance of power was ruptured after the fall of Iraq. Iran entrenched its political and security influence in Iraq, and enhanced its role among the Shia minorities in the Arab Gulf states. This caused widespread fears about its perceived expansionist intentions. From then on, its activities acquired a distinct sectarian character, which in the past it had tried to deny by supporting the Palestinian Sunni Islamic factions.
Subsequently, Iran moved to support the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The Arab street saw in this further evidence of Iran’s sectarian trajectory, worsening its negative image in the minds of most Arabs. An opinion poll conducted by James Zogby on behalf of the Arab-American Institute Foundation in July last year found there was a “shocking” drop in Iran’s popularity in the six countries where the poll was conducted, with the exception of Lebanon. The main factor for this decline was the role played by Iran in the region.
Yet it is necessary to distinguish between the reasons for the Arab position towards Iran and the Israeli and western view. Arabs are uneasy over Iran’s expansionist policies and its sectarian nature. However, they do not view the Iranian nuclear programme as a threat. A poll conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland in October 2011 showed that more than 64% of those surveyed believed it is Iran’s right to continue its nuclear programme. It is not possible to understand this Arab stand without noting their view on Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
Arabs are evidently more worried about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Their logic is clear: as long as Israel possesses nuclear weapons, it is also the right of the region’s countries also to acquire them. Therefore to prevent the escalation of a nuclear arms race, it is essential that the entire Middle East becomes a nuclear-free zone.
Of course, there is an issue deeply rooted in the Arab consciousness that must also be highlighted so as to understand the justifications and motives of their stand towards Iran. The Arabs recognise that Iran is a neighbouring country. It always was, and will remain a pivotal player in the political, economic and cultural fabric of the region. This historic and geographic closeness dictates that Iran should be approached with a high level of responsibility, as good neighbourly relations require an outlook towards the future when defining present options.
Political and economic stability
In this regard, Israel’s threat to launch an attack on Iran does not have support on the Arab street for several reasons. Most importantly, a war with Iran carries a number of risks whose consequences would be unpredictable both in the near and distant future.
The neighbouring Arab Gulf states would find themselves with a grave security reality, which could lead to a dangerous future. Thus the Arabs hope to balance their relations with their neighbour, Iran, in a peaceful manner that neutralises its expansionist ambitions and halts its interference in their internal affairs. This possibility is enhanced by the Arab revolutions that will potentially correct the regional balance of power. The Arabs would do better without chaos whose consequences cannot be contained.
The Arab Spring has inspired the region’s people with a vision of change. Yet there is a long road ahead before they attain political and economic stability.
A war with Iran would distract attention from the needs of the democratic transition to focus on the demands of war. War would redraw alliances and elicit external intervention into the affairs of states and groups. In the event, the Arab Spring would end and be replaced by a Middle East Autumn, one that would not give the region and the world anything but misery.
– © Guardian News & Media 2012
Wadah Khanfar is a former director general of the Al Jazeera television network