Arab majority backs nuclear Iran

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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.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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