What Arabs Really Think About Iran

The Arab world might have soured on President Obama, but opinion polls show that they haven't rushed to embrace Iran.

It is no secret that Arab public opinion toward U.S. President Barack Obama has soured since his June 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt. According to a slew of recent opinion polls, Arabs have been deeply disappointed with Obama's accommodations to Israel. Analysts have suggested that this discontent has caused Arabs to embrace Iran and its nuclear program, and are hostile to U.S.-led attempts to isolate and pressure the Islamic Republic. But on this front, the numbers tell a very different story.

Prof. Shibley Telhami, for example, contended that Arab opinion is "shifting toward a positive perception of Iran's nuclear program." Telhami, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a prominent analyst of Middle Eastern public opinion, asserts that Arab publics even have sanguine views about the consequences for the region if Iran was to develop a nuclear weapon.*

But since last autumn, when Obama reached a public compromise with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the hot-button issue of Israeli settlements, a number of different polls have measured Arab attitudes toward Iran. In every case but one, these surveys have consistently demonstrated heavily negative views of Iran, its nuclear program, and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The mistake of Telhami, and other analysts, is to rely on a single 2010 Zogby poll to make their judgment, rather than considering the full range of polling on the issue.

The Zogby poll, which was conducted from June 29 to July 20, found that 58 percent of those surveyed in six Arab countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates -- believe that Iran is "trying to develop nuclear weapons," not "conducting research for peaceful purposes." This was exactly the same result as last year's Zogby's poll, but the 2010 survey reported an astonishing 50-point net shift on a related question: whether Iranian nuclear weapons would have a positive or negative effect on the Middle East. A year ago, 46 percent of those surveyed believed that the effect would be negative and 21 percent believed it would be positive; this year's poll found that 57 percent thought the result would be positive versus 29 percent who responded that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would have a negative effect on the region.

Much of this shift is attributed to Egypt, where an amazing 69 percent of respondents, even among those who doubt Iran's professions of peaceful intent, still reportedly claimed that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would be a good thing for the region.

There is no persuasive explanation why these numbers shifted so greatly over the past year -- or why they differ so greatly from those reported in every other published Arab poll over this same period. And there are many underlying reasons why a large percentage of Arabs might fear, resent, or just generally dislike Iran: the Sunni-Shiite sectarian split, along with intra-Shiite divisions; the historic and ethnic Arab-Persian cleavage; opposition to Iranian subversion, terrorism, or occupation in Iraq, Lebanon, and most Persian Gulf states; and, especially in the past year, disgust with Iran's brutal dictatorship, and disapproval of Ahmadinejad's condescending and hypocritical attitude toward Arabs and Arab causes. Given the lack of any convincing explanation for the near-seismic shift that Zogby reports, this poll must be considered an unreliable outlier unless some compelling new supporting evidence emerges.

The Zogby poll's findings are even more peculiar given that a Pew Global Attitudes Project Survey asked very similar questions in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon a mere two months earlier, and reached very different results. In the Pew poll, solid majorities in all three Arab countries reported unfavorable views of Iran: Egypt, 66 percent; Jordan, 63 percent; Lebanon, 60 percent. Views of Ahmadinejad were even more negative: Among Egyptians, 72 percent said they had little or no confidence in him; 66 percent of respondents in Jordan and 63 percent in Lebanon said the same.

The Pew poll also found predominantly negative opinions toward Iran's nuclear program in all three Arab societies, not to mention the other predominantly Muslim countries surveyed in the poll. In Egypt and Lebanon, two-thirds opposed the prospect of Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons; Jordanians felt the same way, but only by bare majority (53 percent vs. 39 percent). In all three countries, support within those majorities ranged from 66 to 72 percent in favor of tougher economic sanctions against Iran. In Egypt and Jordan, among the majority that opposed Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, those surveyed also believed by wide margins that it was more important to succeed in thwarting this possibility than to avoid a military conflict.

It's not just Pew that has found consistently negative Arab public attitudes toward Iran. In November 2009, Pechter Middle East Polls (to whom I am an advisor), partnered with an Arab research firm to survey Egyptians and Saudis on the subject. They found  that a solid majority (57 percent) of Saudis favored tougher sanctions against Iran if it did not "accept new limits on its nuclear program." A third even said they would approve "an American military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities" -- and a quarter said the same about an Israeli military strike.

Egyptians were considerably less hawkish on Iran. However, the Pechter poll found that they were still split roughly down the middle on sanctions, with 43 percent of those surveyed saying that they wanted a tougher sanctions regime against the country. Only one-quarter of Egyptian respondents said they would back U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear program, while even fewer (17 percent) approved an Israeli attack.

It's no surprise that Saudis, who live in closer geographical proximity to Iran, were more supportive of aggressive action to roll back the Islamic Republic's influence. Indeed, the Pechter poll's findings are broadly in line with another November 2009 poll, conducted by the Doha Debates and YouGov/Siraj. That poll was limited to a segment of mostly (80 percent) male online users. Still, it was a representative sample from a regional online panel of more than 200,000 otherwise diverse individuals. As such, the results are indicative of sentiment among an important, attentive public in the gulf states.

This survey found that an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of this Arab public in the gulf believed that Iran was planning to build nuclear weapons, despite its claims of peaceful intent. Even more strikingly, just over half (53 percent) agreed with the statement that "Iran would launch a nuclear attack on another country or group if it did acquire nuclear weapons." And by a three-to-one margin, those who said that Iran would use its nuclear weapons believed that the Islamic Republic's target would be Saudi Arabia or another gulf country, not Israel. Accordingly, only a little over a third (37 percent) thought Iranian nuclear weapons would offer the region a "balance of power."

More intriguing findings come from a key country that has not been included in any of the standard "Arab world" surveys: Iraq. An April 2010 Pechter Poll, conducted by a leading local research institute, sought to remedy this glaring gap, with eye-opening results: Among Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Kurds, two-thirds disapproved of Iran's ties with Iraqi political leaders. A solid majority disapproved not only of Ahmadinejad, but also of his statements denying the Holocaust. Even more surprisingly, a mere 17 percent of Iraqi Shiites viewed Ahmadinejad favorably. Most tellingly of all, 43 percent of Iraqi Shiites said they held a negative opinion of Iranian ties with Iraqi political figures, with just 18 percent viewing such ties positively.

So the overall scorecard reads as follows: Since November 2009, four independent, credible polls have shown heavily negative Arab views of Iran, Ahmadinejad, and Iran's nuclear program. Only one poll reported relatively positive views. Arabs may be disillusioned with Obama, but if they object to the United States taking a harder line toward the Islamic Republic, they sure aren't telling the pollsters.

*Due to an editorial error, a version of this sentence that did not reflect the author's views originally appeared in this paragraph. Foreign Policy regrets the error.

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What Do Red Teams Really Do?

Mark Perry paints a misleading portrait of how the U.S. government thinks of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Mark Perry's article, "Red Team" (, June 30) argues that an intelligence unit inside the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) known as the "Red Team" is thinking outside the box about the Middle East and recommending strategies for Hezbollah and Hamas that are "at odds with current U.S. policy."

Perry's thesis is that there is an important divide in the U.S. government over how to deal with these militant groups, as evidenced by the apparent rift between "senior officers at CENTCOM headquarters" and everyone else. For Perry, a prominent advocate of negotiating with radical Islamist groups, this institutional discrepancy over Middle East policy proves that his ideas have achieved credibility at high levels within the U.S. policymaking community.

I recently returned from CENTCOM's headquarters in Tampa, Florida, where I had the pleasure to brief senior CENTCOM and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) officers, Joint Intelligence Operations Center analysts, and several strategic planners on the strategic calculus of Hezbollah and Iran. Also present at the meetings were a few members of the Red Team and authors of the May 7 report to which Perry refers.

After the briefings, I spoke at length to several Red Team members and inquired into the nature of their work. My hosts were kind enough to share unclassified information and answer most of my questions, which clarified many of the lingering questions that remained from Perry's article.

Contrary to what Perry's account of the Red Team's work implies, there is no special significance or mystery to the unit. After the 9/11 attacks, every U.S. intelligence agency was mandated to have a Red Team -- an alternative analysis component -- so that people in the government could imagine the unthinkable. The CENTCOM unit was established in April 2006 following an order by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with a charter to provide the CENTCOM commander, leadership, and staff with alternative viewpoints, challenge common assumptions, and anticipate unintended consequences of events and actions.

"It's just another four to six analysts writing many different papers on different subjects. The fun of Red Team is that it has a little more flexibility than other analysts to play with 'what if' scenarios -- and do some wishful thinking or doomsday scenarios," one senior Red Team member told me. Another strategic planner agreed with me that Perry's article, for whatever reason, created a mystique around the team that is undeserved.

The "Managing Hezbollah and Hamas" report was written around the time President Barack Obama nominated an ambassador to Syria. The report, as one of its authors told me, was "just an analyst's idea."

Indeed, I learned that it was not tasked by CENTCOM leaders or any of their superiors. Gen. David Petraeus, then CENTCOM commander, did read it, and he even wrote on a hard copy of the report that it was "thoughtful" -- though he offered no further evaluation and did not say whether he agreed or disagreed with its conclusions.

And that's where the discussion of the paper ended, according to the Red Team report's author. There was no follow-up or debate about the report's analysis. No Red Team member had a conversation with Petraeus about his thoughts on the subject. "We haven't a clue about that," the author concluded.

Perry's article was more or less accurate about the content of the Red Team report, but not about its purpose. The article made it sound like CENTCOM was considering making a policy recommendation to the Obama administration based on the report. It was only written for several CENTCOM branches and for the CENTCOM commander -- not Washington policymakers. One might say a Red Team paper is floated like a self-generated trial balloon to sharpen American analytical skills and keep everybody on their toes.

By design, Red Team products are often controversial, as rightly stated by Perry, and the resulting debate encourages intellectual integrity and improves the quality of U.S. policymakers' decisions. But what Perry fails to acknowledge is that Red Team products, as suggested above, are designed for internal use only and are not intended in any way to represent the collective view of CENTCOM. Just as importantly, Red Team products are not "position papers." Contrary to what Perry implies, they do not make recommendations for changes in policy. These products, instead, reflect the personal views of analysts who may or may not have been involved in the actual Red Team review of whatever issue was at hand.

Such a paper, one senior intelligence analyst mentioned to me, is just "trying on ideas for size." As the analyst put it, "We're not here to second-guess the president or Department of State on foreign policy. Our concern is military operations and planning." So when a paper like this is leaked, it looks like CENTCOM is advocating a particular foreign-policy track, thus making life difficult for the commander, who is not (and should not be) a political figure. One can understand why top CENTCOM officers were so concerned that the report got leaked.

At a time when we should be having a transparent and reality-based debate about U.S. Middle East policy, Perry's article undermines this goal by creating a distorted view of U.S. collective thinking toward Hezbollah and Hamas. Irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees with U.S. policy, there is a risk associated with creating a false impression among these groups that Washington is confused or divided over policy, when in fact it is not.

Having studied Hezbollah for more than a decade and interviewed many of its senior leaders, I know for a fact that the group pays attention to Western and American reports about it -- and I have no doubt that they read Perry's article. The organization will use any inconsistent U.S. government rhetoric to prove to its constituencies that Washington has an incoherent counterterrorism policy (regardless whether that is true or not). Moreover, it will base its posture toward Israel off the assumption that Washington is unsure of how to approach the organization, when U.S. policymakers are still resolute in their determination to confront Hezbollah on this front.

While Perry portrays the Red Team report as an indication that CENTCOM is pushing U.S. foreign policy in a direction that -- in his view -- will make Americans safer, his article only served to create illusions about complex politico-military organizations that want nothing to do with the United States and that, despite enjoying a certain level of independent action in local politics, still firmly operate in Iran's strategic orbit.

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