By Benjamin Birnbaum
A new poll shows that the percentage of the Arab world that thinks a nuclear-armed Iran would be good for the Middle East has doubled since last year and now makes up the majority.
The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll found that 57 percent of respondents not only believe that Iran’s nuclear program aims to build a bomb but also view that goal positively — nearly double the 29 percent who thought so in 2009. The percentage of those who view an Iranian nuclear bomb negatively fell by more than half, from 46 percent to 21 percent.
The survey, conducted by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami in conjunction with the polling firm Zogby International, also found rapidly diminishing support among Arabs for President Obama, who has made an outreach to the Muslim world a key focus of his foreign policy. Those findings have been reflected in other recent polls.
But the Arab Public Opinion Poll’s findings on Iran stand in marked contrast to the stances of most Sunni Arab leaders, who fear the regional implications of an Iranian bomb.
“In my view, the Arab public position on Iran is largely a defiance vote or an ‘enemy of my enemy’ vote,” Mr. Telhami told the Washington Times.
Last month, The Times reported on unusually blunt remarks from the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S., who said he favored airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear sites by U.S. or Israeli forces despite the consequences for the region.
“If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with [the fallout from military action] versus living with a nuclear Iran,’ my answer is still the same: ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,’“ Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba said during a conference in Aspen, Colo.
A day earlier, the Times of London reported that Saudi Arabia had given Israel tacit approval to use its airspace in the event of an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Officials from the kingdom vehemently denied the report, but most observers suspect that some Arab leaders would quietly cheer an Israeli attack, even if it generated riots in their capitals.
Iran repeatedly has denied that its nuclear program is devoted to anything but producing energy.
“There is no love for Iran in most of the Arab world,” Mr. Telhami said. “They fear Israel and U.S. foreign policy, so when we ask them, ‘Name the two countries that are most threatening to you personally,’ they identify first and foremost Israel and second the United States, and Iran is down on the list.
“So what happens is when they’re angry with the U.S., as they are in 2010, you find them more supportive of America’s enemies,” he said. “In 2009, when they were less angry with the U.S. and more optimistic about the Obama administration and hopeful that something was going to happen in the next year, they didn’t want Iran to be a spoiler.”
Mr. Telhami conducted the survey from June 19 to July 20, surveying 3,976 respondents from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The large sample gives the poll a margin of error of 1.6 percentage points.
“In the great majority of Arab society, the public has very little to say about matters of national security and, being rarely consulted about such things, people have little reason to think about these issues,” said Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s quite possible for people to take positions which they might well change if their opinions mattered.”
“If you were to ask people in the U.A.E., for instance, whether Iran should be able to take over more territory in the U.A.E. — not just the three islands it now controls — I doubt you’d find many people in the U.A.E. who think that’s a good idea,” he added.
“I just don’t think that the problems associated with Iran having nuclear weapons are very vivid for many of the people answering these polls whereas their desire to show the United States and Europe that Middle Easterners can stand up against Western pressure is very vivid,” Mr. Clawson said.
He cautioned that he was skeptical of Mr. Telhami’s methodology and did not necessarily invest a great deal of weight in the findings
Mr. Telhami, who has been conducting the poll since 2003, presented this year’s results Thursday at the Brookings Institution.
Among the findings:
* Mr. Obama’s favorable ratings fell from 45 percent in 2009 to 20 percent this year while his unfavorables nearly tripled, from 23 percent to 62 percent. Similarly, the number of respondents who described themselves as “hopeful” for the administration’s Middle East policy declined from 51 percent to 16 percent, while the ranks of the “discouraged” ballooned from 15 percent to 63 percent.
* Sixty-one percent of respondents cite the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the issue with which they are most disappointed in the Obama administration, while 27 percent choose Iraq and 4 percent Afghanistan.
* Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 86 percent would support a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, in principle. The percentage who would oppose it under any circumstances fell from 25 percent in 2009 to 12 percent this year. Those who believe a solution can be attained only through negotiations outnumber those who favor war as the preferred means, 39 percent to 16 percent.
Amjad Atallah, co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force, said he viewed Mr. Obama’s tanking favorables as a function of frustration among Arabs over a lack of progress on the Palestinian question.
“People who are in love become much more angry when that love is unrequited than people who never had much faith in someone to begin with,” he said. “I think the Arab world never had much faith in the Bush administration, so if something good happened, it was a pleasant surprise.
“With the Obama administration, it’s the exact opposite. There was an intense desire to be in love with this administration, and we haven’t been able to translate that into actual progress on the ground,” Mr. Atallah said.
“If you think about the only positive thing that’s happened in the last year [on the Israeli-Palestinian question], it’s that the Israelis have rejiggered the siege on the Gaza Strip,” he added. “But people don’t give the United States credit for that. They give Turkey and its diplomatic efforts credit for that. They give the flotilla credit.”
The May 31 flotilla incident, in which nine Turks were killed aboard a Turkish-flagged ship trying to run Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory, appears to explain another poll result.
Asked which world leader outside their own country they admire most, the largest percentage of respondents (20 percent) named Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took a hard line against his country’s longtime ally in the aftermath of the bloodshed.
Mr. Erdogan was followed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (13 percent, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (12 percent, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (9 percent), Syrian President Bashar Assad (7 percent), French President Nicolas Sarkozy (6 percent) and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (6 percent). Mr. Chavez and Mr. Nasrallah both won the distinction in previous years.
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