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WASHINGTON, Mar 6 2013 (IPS) - A poll released Tuesday shows a stark decline in favourability among Arab and Muslim citizens regarding the Iranian government and its policies.
Some who follow the issue are warning that tensions between Shia- and Sunni-led governments could ultimately be driving these shifts in attitude.
The poll, released by Zogby Research Services, is the latest in a series of surveys that charts public opinion in the Arab world on Iran. It polled 20,000 citizens in 17 Arab countries and three other non-Arab Muslim countries (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan), and was conducted over the course of several weeks beginning in September.
An earlier poll, conducted in 2006, had indicated skyrocketing public opinion in the Arab world on Iran, with favourability ratings around 75 percent. Six years later, the new poll shows those same rates plummeting to around 25 percent, a decline that is being attributed to shifting perceptions towards both the United States and Iran, as well as growing Sunni-Shia tension.
In an IPS article published almost two years ago, in July 2011, journalist Barbara Slavin noted that favourability ratings toward Iran in the region were already in steep decline. In an extreme case, the Egyptian attitude fell from an 89 percent rating to just 36 percent.
In 2012, the most favourable views of the United States were expressed in Saudi Arabia (30 percent) and Lebanon (25 percent). The least favourable views were found in Jordan (10 percent) and Egypt (six percent).
Numbers indicating favourability toward the United States were generally lower and more volatile than those toward Iran, in the five to 40 percent range.
Meanwhile, Iran was viewed most favourably in Lebanon, with 61 percent, and Egypt further behind with 38 percent.
Iranian favourability ratings began much higher in 2006 and fell in all countries over the next six years. Public opinion fell the least in Lebanon, where favourability toward Iran was the highest out of all the countries (65 percent) in the last year.
In virtually every question, including two on Iranian roles in Bahrain and Syria in which other countries’ favourability ratings severely dropped, Lebanese participants answered with favourability rates above 70 percent.
Different explanations for the results were discussed at the Wilson Center here on Tuesday.
James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute, said that in 2006 Iran had benefited from the perception that it was the centre of resistance against both the West, whose occupation of Iraq was then in its third year, and Israel, which had just fought a brief but very destructive war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Zogby suggested that Turkey was now supplanting Iran in this role, while the latter is perceived as stoking divisiveness in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria. The U.S. profile in the region, he noted, has also been reduced by its withdrawal from Iraq.
But analysts who responded to the poll cautioned against reading the results too optimistically and confusing anti-Iranian and anti-Shia sentiment.
“What we’re seeing is entrenched in a really quite frightening spread of sectarianism,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert and international affairs professor, said Tuesday. The results of the poll, he noted, need to be read as much as a “cautionary tale about the future of the Middle East as a feel-good tale of declining Iranian influence”.
Hisham Melham, head of the Washington bureau of Al Arabiya News Channel, also expressed concern over growing sectarianism in the region, going so far as to say that the Sunni-Shia divide is the worst it has ever been in the region.
The civil war in Syria also appears to be playing a significant role in this dynamic. Marc Lynch warned that some of the events that have proved crucial in undermining Iranian influence in the region, including the ongoing conflict in Syria, are creating new opportunities for expanding Iranian influence.
“Iranian influence in Syria is not going to go away,” he cautioned, “and one can easily imagine an insurgency fighting against what appears to be a Western-backed government in Damascus” when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls.
Middle East observers have been increasingly expressing concern over the region’s deepening sectarianism, especially as it exacerbates the conflict in Syria. After the removal of former president Saddam Hussein in Iraq, sectarian conflict and perception of a threat posed by Shi’ism has grown in the region.
Baghdad has been led by a predominantly Shia government since Hussein’s ouster and subsequent execution.
In the Syrian conflict, the government of President al-Assad has been backed primarily by Iran and the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah, while the rebels, who are predominantly Sunni, are supported primarily by the Sunni-led Gulf kingdoms and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. The Shia-led Iraqi government has also provided backing for al-Assad.
According to the new polling data, Palestinians hold particularly unfavourable views toward Iran, with favourability ratings in the 20 percent range. That compares, for instance, with relatively favourable polling outcomes towards the United States, with two-thirds of Palestinians responding that the U.S. contributed to stability in the Arab world.
Barbara Slavin, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, expressed particular surprise at the Palestinian results, but likewise attributed the finding to the Syrian conflict.
“Iran and Hezbollah are rallying to the side of Assad in Syria, while Arab countries are funnelling money and weapons to the largely Sunni rebels in Syria,” she told IPS.
One of the most striking results of the new poll was a change in Arab public opinion over the past half-dozen years regarding Iran’s efforts to expand its nuclear power programme, producing enriched uranium that could be used for military purposes – a change Tehran denies.
In Saudi Arabia in 2006, for example, only about 15 percent of those polled believed Iran had nuclear weapons ambitions, compared with 78 percent in 2012. In Jordan, that number jumped from eight percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2012.
The number increased in every country polled, albeit by smaller margins in the other six countries.
Although experts disagree on the underlying drivers of the shifting sentiments, it was clear that the polling results could potentially pose major problems for the Iranian government.
“Iranians have tried to project a pan-Islamic image of themselves since the 1979 revolution,” Slavin said, “which doesn’t work if they’re seen as a narrow sectarian power.”
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