Iran is now viewed unfavorably in a majority of Arab countries, according to a major new survey conducted by James Zogby of 20 Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Iran's appeal to mainstream Arab public opinion has virtually collapsed from its 2006 peak, he found, in part because of its violent suppression of protests following the 2009 presidential election. "Syria is the nail in the coffin of Iran's favorable rating in the region," Zogby concluded.
But concealed within a positive narrative of collapsing Iranian soft power is powerful evidence of the alarming spread, intensification, and consolidation of an extremely dangerous sectarianism. That sectarianism, spurred by the repression in Bahrain and the catastrophe in Syria and fueled by Gulf media, is likely more crucial to the future of the Middle East than the ups and downs in Iranian -- or American -- favorable ratings.
It's nothing new to say that sectarianism has spiked over the last two years, after being largely absent in the early heady days of the Arab uprisings. Zogby's wide-ranging survey offers some fascinating new evidence, however. Public opinion survey research in the Arab world always needs to be treated with caution -- sampling is difficult in countries experiencing internal conflict or without accurate census data, while pervasive secret police make honesty a dubious proposition -- but it has become far more routinized and professionalized over the last decade. Some of the numbers in this Zogby poll seem a bit questionable: the 84 percent of Lebanese reporting a favorable view of Iran seems difficult to credit, while the results in Libya (80 percent favorable) and Yemen (84 percent favorable) may be shaped by the difficult of doing survey research in near-failed state conditions. But the broader portrait of Arab rejection of Iran and growing sectarianism is consistent with trends in the media, developments on the ground, and the symbolism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad getting socked with a shoe in Cairo.
The major message in the presentation and reporting of the survey has been the narrative of Iranian decline, articulated bluntly by the title of the Wilson Center event where it was launched: The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab and Muslim Eyes. The results of the survey do indeed support that narrative: Only two Arab countries now see Iran as a good model (Lebanon and Iraq), Iran is viewed unfavorably in 11 out of 17 Arab countries, and large majorities of Arab publics sided with the opposition Green Movement over the Iranian government and disapprove of Iran's role in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf. These findings should put an end to the conceit that Iran is on the march or that Arabs have the slightest interest in aligning with Tehran with or without a nuclear bomb.
This should not be taken as a green light for military action against Tehran, though. While support for a military strike with international legitimacy has grown significantly since 2006 in the polling, there isn't a majority in favor in any Arab country. A 34-point increase in support for a military strike among Jordanians or a 24-point increase among Egyptians is significant as a trend. But approval of military action doesn't crack 40 percent in any surveyed country, which is hardly an overwhelming mandate. Indeed, an American or Israeli military strike is probably the only thing that could rescue Iran's regional image at this point -- particularly if the regime is able to emerge with a Hezbollah-like narrative of success through survival.