Policy Implications of Iran's Fall From Favor in Arab and Muslim Public Opinion

In Looking at Iran: Iran's Rise and Fall in Public Opinion, I detail the dramatic shifts that have occurred in Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Iran, its regional policies and its nuclear program.

Once viewed positively by sizable majorities in almost every country across the region, Iran has experienced a precipitous decline in its favorable ratings. The change, it appears from my findings, is largely due to concerns with Iran's policies in Iraq, Syria, and the Arab Gulf region.

At the same time, I observe a worrisome sectarian divide that has opened up between Sunni and Shia Muslims in several countries, most notably in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan. Majorities point to Iranian policies as the cause. But local grievances and violent acts perpetrated by sect-based extremist groups have also played a significant role in aggravating tensions. The effect of the divide is somewhat muted, but definitely not erased, by ethnicity and cultural issues, which still define the identities of most Arabs and Muslims.

Iran's nuclear program was once strongly supported throughout the region by the general public, though not necessarily by their governments. Now it is a subject of concern in most countries. Just six years ago, most Arabs and Muslims were willing to defend Iran against international pressure, now they want the international community to do something to rein in Iran's ambitions. Sanctions against Iran, once strongly opposed, are now supported by a majority of Arabs and Muslims in most countries. While there is an uptick in support for military action against Iran, should it persist in its nuclear program, majorities in almost all countries remain opposed to this option.

Finally, the United States has experienced a slight improvement in its favorable ratings in Arab opinion and, more importantly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Arabs and Muslims who now see (or hope to see) the United States playing a positive role in promoting peace and stability in the region. This has been due, in part, to the U.S.'s lower profile and less aggressive posture in the region, and renewed expectation that in a second term Barack Obama may fulfill the hopes Arabs and Muslims had for his presidency.

All of this has some important policy implications, which should be considered:

Arab and Muslim public opinion remains in flux and regional sensitivities remain high. Given this volatile setting, policy makers should consider options carefully.

Iran should recognize its current regional isolation and the precariousness of its position and not overplay its hand. In the past, their defiant behavior might have won support from an appreciative regional audience. Now it is seen as threatening and unsettling provocation.

Governments in the region should address the domestic concerns and coordinate policies to rein in the extremist groups that are fueling sectarian discontent and alienation, creating fertile ground that is exploited by both Iran and its allies, and Sunni sectarian terrorist groups.

Israel should be pressed to address and resolve the matter of long-denied Palestinian rights. Should the Palestinian situation explode in renewed violence and massive repression, and should the United States, as expected, side with Israel, this could inflame regional passions reopening a door that Iran had closed on itself.

In this context, it is important to consider that the new governments in Arab Spring countries are less able to control angry protests. The attack on Israel's embassy in Egypt and repeated raids on the U.S. Embassy next to Tahrir Square are clear examples.

The United States should recognize the benefits that have accrued from its lower profile and its effort to work with allies by "leading from behind." Should the United States change course and either resume a belligerent posture or take unsupported and unpopular unilateral military action against Iran, this might only serve to refocus the region's attention away from Iran's meddlesome behaviors. Regional attitudes could once again shift in Iran's favor.

Finally, all parties should consider the wisdom of bellicose threats and suggestions of military action. This applies to the United States, Israel, and Iran. These only exacerbate tensions and deepen regional divides. They also play into the hands of those in Iran who have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to turn threats (or an actual attack, should it come to that) into an increase in support across the region.