In a March 2012 BBC interview, the Israeli deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor stated that the prospect of a nuclear Iran “sends shivers of fear to all Arab countries.” U.S. officials as well as most major Western media outlets are similarly spreading the notion that Iran’s Arab neighbours oppose an Iranian bomb. “Nobody wants a nuclear Iran” seems to be one of the cornerstones of Western discourse. Is this true? What do the Arabs think?
There have been several major polls on Arab public opinion. One of the most illuminating is the 2010 Brookings Institute poll, conducted in 6 countries across the Middle East. The Brookings Institute is a renowned think tank aimed at promoting democracy. When asked to identify the two nations posing the biggest threat to the Middle East, a majority of Arabs did not identify Iran; instead, 88% of respondents chose Israel, with the US as a close runner up with 77%. Only 10% of respondents chose Iran. Subsequently, when Arab respondents were asked how an Iran possessing nuclear weapons would impact the region some 57% responded that they would be “more positive” with an additional 20% responding that they would be indifferent. Finally, when asked about President Obama, 63% of the respondents answered that they were “discouraged” by his policies. Only 16% remained hopeful.
A more recent poll by Doha institute conducted in July, 2011, reaching more than 16,000 respondents in 12 countries across the Middle East, displayed similar results. In this poll, a mere 5% of respondents identified Iran as being a threat to “the security of the Arab homeland.” In nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria and Mauritania, virtually nobody (1% or less) perceived Iran as being a threat.
What’s also interesting is that some 50–68% of the respondents in the Doha poll answered that they would support the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. While Western media continuously voices the sentiment that a nuclear Iran would trigger a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the majority of Arabs (some 55–60% of the respondents) on the contrary believe it is a nuclear Israel that is currently providing the incentive for other Arab states to acquire the bomb.
Thus, continuously stating that Iran’s Arab neighbours view Iran as a threat is clearly erroneous, as polls show that some 77% of Arabs would be either more positive or indifferent towards an Iran with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, this typical Western discourse also displays the habitual contempt for democracy prevalent in the West and Middle East alike. Needless to say, it is far from a pro-democracy stance to claim Iran’s neighbours view Iran as a threat as this statement goes directly against the opinion of some 90–99% of the population of the countries in question and only takes into account the views of its dictators.
And while Arab rulers might have successfully circumvented public opinion in the past, the Arab Spring has clearly shown that such action is no longer permissible without running the very real risk of sparking further uprisings, which can ultimately lead to the downfall of the regime in question. Thus, Arab nations can no longer join the Western band wagon of Iranian condemnation without provoking further tension in an already inflamed region. Hopefully, the Arab Spring will bring forth a climate of democracy where, in the future, public opinion actually matters.
Tomas Ericsson is a Swede currently residing in Shanghai where he works as an English translator and an English teacher.