Iran and the United States -- What Really Matters to Middle Eastern Publics?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during a rally in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during a rally in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 10, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Tehran and other cities chanting 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' as Iran celebrated the anniversary of the ousting of the US-backed shah. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference in Washington on Monday, Vice President Biden claimed that Iran is on the defensive in its own neighborhood: "When we came to office...Iran was on the ascendancy in the region. It is no longer on the ascendancy." In fact, the Obama administration has "left Iran more isolated than ever." And that matters, Biden said, because "God forbid, if we have to act, it's important that the rest of the world is with us."

Biden's words reflect an all-too-familiar trope about Iran -- that the non-Arab and Shi'a Islamic Republic can be easily isolated in its regional environment, thereby facilitating its ultimate demise. American elites have been making this argument virtually since the Islamic Republic's founding out of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Over the last decade, though, on-the-ground reality in the Middle East has not been kind to those espousing it. Indeed, by the end of George W. Bush's presidency, Western commentators were compelled to concede, by polls and other evidence, that Iran's opposition to America's hegemonic assertions, its support for groups resisting Israeli occupation of Arab populations, and its pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities in defiance of America and Israel had won it widespread approbation among Arab publics.

More recently, however, commentators have been asserting, with escalating intensity, that Tehran's heyday is over. According to them, a combination of international criticism of Iran's 2009 presidential election, President Obama's purportedly more "sensitive" approach to the Middle East, and the outbreak of the Arab Awakening has eviscerated popular support for the Islamic Republic across the region.

This narrative's latest iteration comes in Jim Zogby's new eBook, Looking at Iran: How 20 Arab and Muslim Nations View Iran and Its Policies. Zogby has long been a stalwart advocate for Arab-American rights and a more balanced U.S. approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict -- issues on which we are proud to have supported him.

In his new eBook, however, Zogby has a different agenda. Using survey data from 17 Arab countries as well as from Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey, Zogby posits that popular support for Iran in the Arab and Muslim worlds has declined sharply over the past several years -- from a 2006 high to a point today at which Muslim publics now view the Islamic Republic in deeply negative terms. Though Zogby claims he "did not write a book that prescribes specific policy," his latest work seems aimed less at explanation than at legitimating a particular strategic agenda -- one that increases the chance of another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East.

Zogby opens with a clear thesis: "When Iran was seen [by Arab publics] through the prism of U.S. and Israeli practices, it won" the battle for regional public opinion; alternatively, "when Iran is judged by its regional behavior and its domestic repression, it loses support." In his polls, though, Zogby deploys questions asking respondents to judge the Islamic Republic and its policies in artificial isolation from U.S. and Israeli practices, effectively guaranteeing results affirming his thesis.

Take, for example, Zogby's treatment of Iran's regional standing, assessed by its perceived favorability. Zogby's data show that, when asked to rate Iran without reference to other regional or international players, ever larger percentages of Arabs and other Muslims over the past seven years have viewed the Islamic Republic unfavorably. In Zogby's most recent polls, from 2012, Iran was seen favorably by majorities in just two Arab countries (Iraq and Lebanon). Zogby also uses favorability/unfavorability data to argue that America's regional standing is improving, because of a "less aggressive U.S. posture and the expectations that, in a second Obama administration, the United States might step up efforts to press Israel to make concessions for peace with the Palestinians."

Sounds bad for Iran and at least relatively positive for America, right? But set Zogby's favorability/unfavorability data for Iran next to equivalent data for the United States -- a juxtaposition more reflective of how Arabs and Muslims actually evaluate their strategic environment -- and a different picture emerges. Even with the (slight) improvement in U.S. standing since 2011, Zogby's 2012 data show that America's favorability scores surpass Iran's in just four countries -- Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. By contrast, Iran has higher favorability than the United States in fourteen Arab countries and in Pakistan, and is effectively tied with America in Jordan, a longtime U.S. security partner.

Morever, Zogby neglected to ask questions that would almost certainly have elicited answers at odds with his thesis. He notes, for example, that in 2008 his data put Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizballah Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (a key Iranian partner) high among world leaders most admired by Arabs. But he fails to include subsequent surveys by Zogby International (a polling firm founded by his brother) and other studies that continue identifying Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah among world leaders most admired by Arabs.

Similarly, while Zogby highlights data from his 2012 survey showing that a majority of respondents now think that Iran's nuclear program "makes the region less secure" and that there should be a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, he fails to put regional attitudes about Iran's nuclear activities in a comparative context. If he had, he might well have gotten results like those obtained by the University of Maryland's annual Arab Public Opinion Surveys, showing that, by orders of magnitude, Arabs identify Israel and the United States as much bigger threats to them than Iran. He might also have gotten results like those obtained by Arab researchers, showing that support for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East is driven by concern over Israel's nuclear arsenal and that, until Israel foreswears nuclear weapons, regional publics think other countries have the right to pursue them, too. But such results would have undercut Zogby's main thesis.

Zogby asserts, "it is the behavior of Iran and its allies" -- in various regional arenas, in its nuclear activities, and in its internal politics -- "that have led to the region's alienation from the Islamic Republic." This overlooks massive and sustained efforts by Gulf Arab monarchies in recent years to portray the political awakening of Shi'a communities -- a natural part of the political awakening of Arab societies generally -- as Iranian "meddling."

It is not Iran, but America's Gulf Arab allies that have played the sectarian "card" -- not just through well-funded propaganda, but also by backing violent (and virulently anti-Shi'a) Sunni extremists across the Middle East. In this context, it is remarkable how well Iran's regional standing has held up. Notwithstanding Zogby's reference to Iran's domestic "repression," when disenfranchised Middle Eastern publics get to vote on their political futures, they choose some version of what the Islamic Republic gives Iranians the chance to pursue -- the integration of participatory politics and Islamist governance. Every democratically-elected government that has come to power during the Arab Awakening -- in Tunisia, Libya, and, most importantly, Egypt -- has sought improved relations with Tehran. When popular sovereignty finally prevails in Bahrain, a new Bahraini government will, too.

Zogby notes that substantial majorities of Arabs and other Muslims continue to oppose using military force against Iran over the nuclear issue. But the most disturbing aspect of Looking at Iran is its implicit usefulness for those arguing that America could use force against Iran with little risk of regional blowback. This argument is profoundly -- and dangerously -- mistaken.

After failed U.S. invasions-cum-occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a war on terror that has deeply alienated Muslim societies, and with ongoing U.S. support for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America's position in the Middle East is hanging by a thread. If, in this climate, America launches another war to disarm another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it doesn't have, the blowback against U.S. interests will make the damage done to America's regional position by the Iraq war look almost trivial by comparison.

American elites need to abandon myths about the Islamic Republic, which isn't about to collapse or be overthrown by its own population -- and isn't being rejected by its neighbors, either. For its own interests, the United States needs to come to terms with Iran -- through serious diplomacy, not sanctions and force.