The Middle East Channel

Misreading Arab public opinion on Iran's nuclear program

In a recent interview with the BBC, Israel's deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, who is also the country's Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, said that the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons "...sends shivers of fear to all Arab countries." The assumption behind this statement is that "Arab states" see in Iran's nuclear program a threat to their national security. This might lead one to believe that Arab governments and publics would support, or at least not oppose, military measures against Iran.

But debate about a military strike against Iran to cripple its nuclear facilities cannot be conducted with the old mindset that shaped our views about the Arab Middle East before the seismic political changes introduced by the "Arab Spring" -- the mindset that equated "Arab states" with Arab governments and ruling families. Today, the transformation in the relationship between Arab governments and their constituencies ought to be strongly factored into any discussion of a military approach to the Iranian nuclear question.

To learn more about how Arabs view the threat that Iran poses to Arab national security and about nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the Doha Institute recently surveyed the publics in 12 Arab countries covering more than 85 percent of the total population of the Arab world. The survey, which was conducted from February to July 2011, consisted of more than 16,000 face-to-face interviews with representative samples in these countries, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

The results were unambiguous: The vast majority of the Arab public does not believe that Iran poses a threat to the "security of the Arab homeland." Only 5 percent of respondents named Iran as a source of threat, versus 22 percent who named the U.S. The first place was reserved for Israel, which 51 percent of respondents named as a threat to Arab national security. Arab societies differed modestly in their answers: The largest percentage viewing Iran as a threat was reported in Lebanon and Jordan (10 percent) and the lowest (1 percent or less) was reported in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Sudan. Even when respondents were asked about the state that poses the greatest threat to their particular country, the pattern held: Iran (7 percent), U.S. (14 percent), and Israel (35 percent). Interestingly, while Saudi Arabia is often cited as the primary Arab state in support of belligerence against Iran, the data indicate that this view doesn't seem to extend to its public. In the Saudi Arabian sample, only 8 percent believed that Iran presents a threat -- a lower percentage even than that which viewed the U.S. as a source of threat (13 percent).

The explicit questions about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East revealed other nuanced but unmistakable answers. Between 50 percent and 68 percent of respondents in 10 out of the 12 surveyed countries supported the idea of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, with only two countries reporting less than 50 percent support (Morocco, 47 percent; Mauritania, 41 percent). However, this view changes when considering that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. More than half of all respondents (55 percent) believe that Israel's possession of nuclear weapons justifies other states in the region seeking to acquire such weapons. Interestingly, this percentage is about 60 percent in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan (the so-called "Sunni" alliance). Finally, about 70 percent of those who support a nuclear-free Middle East make the same justification -- that it is the right of other states in the region to pursue nuclear weapons in light of Israel's possession of them.

Adapting to the sweeping changes of the Arab Spring requires a new paradigm about the Middle East, one that is cognizant and respectful of the democratic will of Arab public opinion. This is most needed when weighing serious interventions such as military action against Iran's nuclear installations. Operating within the old paradigm may result in grave strategic errors.

First, stating that the "Arab states" view Iran as a major national security threat -- a frequently cited "fact" -- is not supported by these data. Such views may be privately expressed by some Arab rulers, but the empirical data demonstrates a gulf between such views and that of the broader Arab public. Within a new mindset, it is no longer accurate to say that "Arab states" support a strike against Iran.

Second, Arab governments that were willing to ignore their publics before the recent changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen will now hesitate to do so, because the Arab Spring endowed the Arab public with enormous power. Policymakers in the Arab world who debate supporting military options against Iran must themselves adapt to the new weight of the Arab public. They only continue to ignore these shifting realities at their peril.

Third, with a majority of the Arab public thinking that it is justified for other states in the region to seek nuclear weapons in light of Israel's possession of them, there needs to be an answer for why Israel has the right to possess numerous nuclear weapons while Iran's mere pursuit of them is considered by some to be a causus belli (despite serious questions as to whether Iran is even seeking such weapons beyond civilian purposes). Such answers have not been offered, and Israel's nuclear arsenal has never been the subject of serious international scrutiny. While the question about Israel's right to possess nuclear weapons is not raised in the American discourse on Iran, it seems to be central to the Arab public.

In this context, the Arab public is likely to view threats of a military strike by Israel or the U.S. against Iran as brute intimidation. The potential damage to the already dubious U.S. moral standing in the Middle East is enormous. Furthermore, if the American threats and policies against Iran's nuclear program are perceived as motivated by Israeli pressures -- a widely held view in the Arab world and elsewhere -- the stature and prestige of the U.S. will inevitably suffer even further in that region.

These errors and mistakes in judgment can still be avoided. The present historical moment in the Middle East offers an opportunity to the U.S. and the West in general to change the old pattern of relationships with the Middle East, based on ties with autocratic ruling families and undemocratic regimes, to one respectful of popular will and which thereby bolsters the chances for fledgling democracies to emerge.

Nadim N. Rouhana is professor of international affairs and conflict studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the founding director of Mada al-Carmel -- Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa, Israel.

AFP/Getty images

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