An overview of contemporary Arab attitudes towards Iran

[NOTE: I delivered a condensed version of this talk at the excellent Iran and the Arab world conference held at Rutgers University yesterday, February 13, 2010.]

An overview of contemporary Arab attitudes towards Iran

At this important conference on Iran and the Arab world, I decided to focus on an overview of contemporary Arab attitudes towards Iran because I think that without understanding the wide range, ambivalence and complexity of these perceptions a full appreciation of the political, strategic and cultural dynamics between these societies is not possible. Obviously, it’s not going to be possible to even begin to tap the depths of this extremely charged and overdetermined relationship, but I do think we can begin to sketch the outlines of its most important features. The present range of attitudes towards Iran in the Arab world can be roughly divided along five obvious axes, and I will consider these in connection and contrast with each other. The first axis is the attitude of the pro-Western Arab states, especially the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt. The second axis involves mainstream Sunni Arab public opinion. The third axis consists of the Sunni Islamist movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and analogous salafist groups throughout the Arab world. The fourth axis is made up of Iran’s allies and clients, in particular Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. The fifth and final axis is the extremely complicated situation defining relations between Iran and constituencies in Iraq. Of course there are dozens, if not hundreds, of more aspects to the relationship, but these five registers of perception of Iran in the Arab world involve a significant proportion of its most significant elements.

1. Iran and the pro-Western Arab regimes

For the most part, the attitude of pro-Western Arab regimes towards Iran at present is one of anxiety. Iran is regarded as a hegemonic power with an agenda that is essentially threatening, if not to the regional order, then at least to the strategic interests of certain states. The nature of this threat is perceived differently in different parts of the Arab world. In Gulf states, the fear of direct forms of Iranian hegemony is quite pronounced. This is exacerbated by Iran’s territorial claims over Bahrain and deep suspicions that it may harbor additional territorial ambitions. Similar concerns have to do with control of the strategic waters of the Gulf, as expressed in the dispute over the proper naming of the Gulf (“Arabian” versus “Persian”). It is among the Gulf states that concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program is greatest, both because it is seen as a potential element in an Iranian hegemonic program in the Gulf region, but also because either Gulf states have made it clear that they would feel the need individually, or the GCC collectively, for some kind of reliable deterrent of their own in the case of a demonstrated Iranian nuclear capacity. This would involve either an effort to create a Gulf Arab bomb, so to speak, or more formalized relationship with NATO or the United States or some other multilateral military alliance to extend deterrent protection to GCC states. Raghida Dergham has a very instructive article in a recent edition of al-Hayat, the Saudi-owned pan Arab newspaper, that expresses Arab concerns that, in addition to facing increased potential Iranian hegemony, Western states and others might use this increased vulnerability to “blackmail” Arab states and insist on various policy changes favorable to the West but unfavorable to Arabs.

Anxiety about Iranian ambitions and intentions has not dictated simply bad or deteriorating relations, however. Bahrain’s concerns are obvious, but a number of Gulf states have sought to maintain or develop their relations with Iran in spite of their reservations. Saudi Arabia has never closed the door on the relationship, and there has been an interesting and very suggestive tentative rapprochement with Kuwait. Qatar in particular has maintained good relations with Iran, partly motivated by its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the sense that Iran and its allies in the region are a counterweight to Saudi influence. Gulf state anxieties about Iran tend to be linked to the degree and nature of the Shiite populations in those societies. Concern about Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and to some extent Kuwait, for example, do not have the same impact in the UAE or Qatar. Obviously, the degree of perceived vulnerability to Iranian internal influence within their own countries through local Shiite communities that might develop links to Iran considered unacceptable and threatening by the regimes are essential elements in this pattern of nervousness.

Other pro-Western Arab regimes concerned about Iranian influence include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, and possibly Yemen as well. In these cases the concern has do with the internal security and stability of these regimes, linked to the activities of Iran’s allies and clients. Egypt’s increasingly bitter confrontation with Hamas over the question of the Gaza border and its recent purported discovery of a Hezbollah cell operating in Egypt have caused the Egyptian national security establishment to believe that Iran either has or is in the process of acquiring a new strategic front on both sides of the border and into the Sinai Peninsula. In other words, Egypt currently feels it may be losing control over a crucial border area and that this is a direct threat to its national security. The fact that the main opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, is the parent organization of the de facto ruling entity in Gaza, Hamas, only exacerbates these fears. The nightmare is a scenario in which Iranian clients in Gaza and their allies in Egypt completely subvert Egyptian control over Sinai, leading to a crisis that ultimately undermines or even topples the regime itself. I’ll have more to say about the relationship between Egypt, Gaza and Iran a little later on.

Jordan has similar concerns to Egypt, although its perception of the threat of Iranian allies and clients undermining its regime is more distant than the Egyptian one. As long as the Palestinian Authority and not Hamas remains firmly in the control of the West Bank, Jordan is somewhat insulated from the direct effects of this problem. However, the prospect of an extension of Hamas rule from Gaza to the West Bank or parts of the West Bank could place the Jordanians in a very similar position to that in which the Egyptians find themselves at the present.

Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority have, of course, to deal with Iranian clients as major opposition forces and armed militias that operate their own foreign policies to the point of initiating wars. In the Lebanese case, Hezbollah is the largest and most important political party and the largest and most powerful armed force in the country, although a coalition of almost all other parties in Lebanon is sufficient to offset its power and prevent Hezbollah dominance in the country. It’s also perfectly clear that Hezbollah understands that that it is not in its interests to become the governing party in Lebanon or a dominant force. Its relationship with the non-Shiite population in Lebanon is not such that this would be strategically wise. Moreover, Lebanese history consistently demonstrates that whenever any party or force, whether internal or foreign, maneuvers itself into a dominant position, other forces unite in a coalition to suppress that dominance and restore the Lebanese “balance,” which is invariably, at best, a stability of unstable forces. Thus opinion in Lebanon is sharply divided along sectarian lines as recently demonstrated by a major Pew opinion poll: Hezbollah is deeply popular among Lebanese Shiites, but enjoys very little support among Lebanese Christians and almost no support at all among Lebanese Sunnis. The same sentiments no doubt apply to attitudes towards Iran and its considerable influence in Lebanon.

The PLO and the PA, even more starkly, are in a zero-sum competition for power with Hamas, and attitudes towards Iran among Palestinians, as in Lebanon, are almost entirely based on attitudes towards the internal power struggle. There is also a clear division between the civilian leadership in Gaza, which appears to want more independence of action such as signing the Egyptian-brokered national reconciliation agreement, and the paramilitary leadership and even more significantly the leadership in exile in Damascus, which tend to place much more emphasis on alliances with both Iran and other Muslim Brotherhood parties. In other words, there appears to be a wing of Hamas that sees itself as the political leadership of Gaza with the responsibilities that go with that governing authority, and as primarily a Palestinian organization, but at least two other wings that view the organization more in the context of regional political alliances and agendas, and they have proven dominant.

2. Mainstream Sunni Arab public opinion

It’s very difficult to sum up mainstream public opinion among Sunni Arabs regarding Iran. To some extent it depends on extremely complicated factors such as nationality, class, political orientation, religious sentiment and many other complex factors. Any effort to discuss it is by definition reductive, and possibly even a caricature, but one has to try. Since civil society and human rights organizations have already been covered by one of my colleagues on a previous panel, I will not retread that ground here.

First, there’s no doubt that many Sunni Arabs regard Iran with a great deal of admiration. It successfully carved an independent role for itself in a region that wasn’t assumed to have space for that in the last decades of the 20th century, and confronted both superpowers simultaneously and not only survived but in many ways thrived. Beyond politics, the relative success and sophistication of Iranian society is an object of admiration and envy for many if not most ordinary Arabs. Islamists and some left-wing nationalists are also intoxicated by the idea that the present Iranian regime is a “revolutionary” entity confronting Zionism and imperialism on behalf of either the Muslims or the downtrodden of the world, depending on who you’re listening to. Iran gets a good deal of sympathetic coverage on Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, which is the principle opinion maker in the contemporary Arab world, consistent praise from many Islamists (although certainly not all, and very much depending on the context as we shall see), and even many voices on the left. It’s noteworthy that there was an outpouring of support for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad from many Arab activists, both left and right, following the election fraud scandal last summer and the subsequent crackdown on the ensuing civil rights movement. Left populists like Azmi Bishara presented their audiences with a version of Ahmadinejad as an anti-imperialist hero, man of the people and beloved, popular leader, and denigrated the green movement protesters as elite, effete, westernized, bourgeois troublemakers and crybabies.

However, in other segments of Arab public opinion the protesters and the civil liberties movement in Iran have been regarded with enormous admiration. It has prompted pointed and repeated questions about why the Arabs, who have in most cases even less rights than Iranians do even under the present circumstances, have not reacted in the same way. This reflected both genuine sentiments, reinforcing a commonplace view in the Arab world that Iranians simply have a more sophisticated society than most of the Arabs do, and a certain kind of schadenfreude on the part of Arabs unsympathetic to the Iranian regime. The segment of Arab public opinion and media that is unfriendly to Iran did not disguise its glee in seeing a rival and the pillar of some of the oppositional forces in the Arab world teetering slightly and losing a great deal of its luster as protesters were beaten in the streets.

Along with this basis of admiration for Iran’s political, social, cultural and other achievements (in contrast with the widespread Arab self-perception of relative inadequacy) is a set of countervailing sentiments and indeed prejudices. First, there is a substantial body of Sunni Arab public opinion that shares the concerns and anxieties of the pro-Western regimes, not only in the Gulf but in many states. Iran’s rise as a hegemonic power has caused concern not only among Arab elites, but also among many ordinary people as well. The degree of this sentiment is impossible to measure, but there’s no question that it is substantial and expresses itself in numerous ways. In addition to concerns about Iranian hegemony, ambitions, territorial claims and nuclear program, as well as its sponsorship of armed militias in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere, are deep-seated prejudices against Persians ethnically and Shiites religiously. Anti-Persian sentiment and anti-Shiite bigotry (which can be extremely vicious) either stand alone or mix with the other, more legitimate, concerns to produce a potent negative current in Arab public opinion unfavorable to Iran.

3. Sunni Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood

Perhaps the most complex attitudes of all in the Sunni Arab world are those held by Sunni Islamists, salafists and Muslim Brotherhood parties and analogous groups. For the most part over the past few years, relations between Iran and its allies and Sunni Arab Islamists have been exceptionally poor. They found themselves on opposite sides of the war in Iraq, the contest for power in Lebanon, attitudes towards the Syrian regime, and in many other core conflicts, power struggles and disputes in the Arab world. Moreover, Sunni Islamists and Muslim Brothers tend to be among those most likely to harbor deep-seated religious bigotry against Shiites on principle, and paranoid conspiracy theories and fantasies about alleged Iranian efforts to convert large numbers of Arab Sunnis to Shiite Islam were accepted and promoted by many such individuals and organizations.

However, the hegemonic agenda of the Iranian regime and the revolutionary agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood parties finally found common cause in the Gaza war in support of Hamas, the only organization with one foot in each camp. Hamas is a core Muslim Brotherhood party, and its leadership recently made a ritual Pledge of Allegiance (ba’yah) to the new supreme guide of the mother Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt. However, because its leadership in exile is based in Damascus and it receives direct financial, technical and other support from Iran through Syria, Hamas uniquely is also part of the pro-Iranian alliance in the Arab world. When Israel launched its assault on Gaza in December 2008, within hours pro-Iranian and Muslim Brotherhood commentators, joined by some sympathetic left-nationalists, flooded the airwaves on the Arab TV networks to insist that Egypt was primarily at fault, not Israel, and began the drumbeat of trying to use the war to undermine one of the key pro-western Arab regimes on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition in Egypt.

The one thing both parties could agree on is the usefulness of a narrative that identifies the contemporary Arab world as the scene of a historic struggle between the “culture of resistance” versus the “culture of accommodation,” or as I have referred to it in shorthand, “the martyrs versus the traitors.” Arab allies of Iran and Sunni Islamists have both been using the war and all subsequent developments related to Gaza to try to promote this narrative in the hopes that it will acquire hegemonic status and define the political worldview of an entire generation of young Arabs. While it has gained a good deal of traction, it has not yet become a hegemonic narrative, although it might be reasonable to say it is currently the dominant narrative (that is to say, the most widely credited). To the extent that Sunni Islamists such as Muslim Brothers can make common cause with Iran and its allies over Hamas, Gaza and promoting the myth of the martyrs versus the traitors, Sunni Islamist antipathy towards Iran is greatly attenuated. And, to the extent that this narrative gains ground in Arab public opinion generally, it greatly enhances Iran’s credibility and appeal insofar as it successfully positions itself as a key factor in the “culture of resistance.” Understanding that this narrative is a key to its regional ambitions vis-à-vis Sunni Arab public opinion, the Iranian government has been extremely adroit at exploiting the Palestinian issue, outbidding everyone else with Holocaust denial, issuing frequent obituaries for Israel, and posing as the champions of Al Quds at every possible opportunity.

4. Iran’s allies and clients in the Arab world

Iran’s allies and clients in the Arab world are a decidedly mixed bag, even leaving the incredibly complicated set of forces in Iraq out of the picture for the moment. Perhaps the most uncomplicated relationship is with Hezbollah, an Iranian-inspired and in part created organization that does not have any obvious conflicts of interest with its sponsors. Of course, Hezbollah is also the primary representative of the largest single community in Lebanon, the Shiites, and has its domestic political responsibilities. In this regard, it is a typical Lebanese political party, split in two registers between local and national responsibilities to a constituency on the one hand, and regional and international obligations to a foreign sponsor on the other (there is no such thing as a large, significant and independent Lebanese political party in my opinion — they all have excessive entanglements with foreign powers, and Hezbollah is one of the most obvious examples). So the only real question about Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah is the extent to which that party exercises any fundamental autonomy in the relationship when it comes to the biggest picture issues, especially military and intelligence questions. There’s no doubt Iran is perfectly happy to leave internal Lebanese political calculations to the Hezbollah leadership, but there is a very real question about Iran’s role in Hezbollah’s decisions on military matters, especially with regard to Israel.

Opinion is sharply divided on this subject ranging from a traditional perspective that holds that Hezbollah’s military and intelligence wings are little more than cadres of the pasdaran, to a more nuanced view that holds that Iran has a patron-client relationship with Hezbollah but not unlimited influence even on matters of war and peace, to a most remarkable theory floated on the Internet the other day which held that Hezbollah is the dominant party in its relationship with Iran and that its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is senior to Ahmadinejad! I think we can safely confirm that this last characterization is completely inaccurate, and, I think, also be dubious about the traditional view that Hezbollah is simply and only a creature of Iran when it comes to military matters. It seems clear that some kind of nuanced evaluation of the degree of Iranian influence over Hezbollah is required, but it’s extremely difficult to determine what its limitations might be.

A practical question that usually springs to mind is, if the United States and/or Israel attacked Iranian nuclear facilities or other targets, would Hezbollah spring into action against Israeli targets as part of a coordinated counterattack by Iran? In other words, when push comes to shove, is Hezbollah at the command of its Iranian patrons? The historical record suggests that it probably is, but at least two factors must give us pause: first, Hezbollah has no choice but to consider not only its patron’s interests but also those of its constituents and the effects of its actions on other Lebanese and its own ability to continue to function as a successful party and state-within-a-state in the south; and second, the fact that Hezbollah has been in continuous evolution since its founding in 1982 and that therefore past precedent does not necessarily dictate current relationships or future behavior.

Iran’s main ally in the Arab world is Syria, a country that welcomed the “Islamic revolution” from the outset, and has maintained and indeed expanded its strategic links with Iran under both Hafez al-Assad and his successor son Bashar. Syria has proven invaluable in providing Iran with a link to the Arab world generally, especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and Damascus, and to facilitating a Sunni Islamist campaign against the American occupation in Iraq that also advanced Iranian interests. However, Syria has made it clear that it is willing to enter into a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel under the right conditions (this would almost certainly involve the return of the Golan Heights, probably some recognition of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, and no doubt financial inducements among other things). The price that Syria would have to pay in return to Israel and the United States would almost certainly include scaling back or eliminating entirely its alliance with Iran and its support of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. Therefore, Iran’s alliance with Syria is threatened by Syria’s own perceptions of its interests as superseding the conditions of the alliance. Under the present circumstances there do not appear to be any reasons for believing that such a peace agreement is imminent or even likely, so the alliance with Iran remains strong, however the prospect that it could end without any change in Iranian behavior or policy means that it is at least somewhat compromised and attenuated.

Iran is frequently accused of supporting insurgent or opposition groups throughout the Arab world by governments facing these insurrections — most recently the Yemeni government, which accuses Iran of directly supporting the Houthi rebels. As frequently happens in these cases, Yemen has not been able to provide any direct evidence to back up his allegations, and most Western intelligence agencies say they don’t have any either. However, the allegation sticks because it’s consistent with Iran strategy for projecting its power by exploiting conflicts and bringing order to chaos through client and proxy groups, and because the Houthis are Zaidi Shiites with a certain degree of religious connection with the Khomeinite government in Tehran. In other words, it’s hard for many Sunni Arabs to imagine Iran passing up this opportunity even if direct evidence has not been discovered.

5. Iraq

The question of Iraq poses an exceptionally difficult problem regarding Arab attitudes towards Iran. The fact that traditionally pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist political parties came to power in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein has been a source of a great deal of concern and anxiety throughout the Sunni Arab world, including inside Iraq itself, in the Gulf and in the region at large. However, this points to the fact that there is a very large Shiite population in Iraq with decidedly pro-Iranian sympathies and political orientations. Other than Lebanon, Iraq is the Arab country in which Iran most easily finds natural and committed political allies in large numbers (Bahrain may have this potential as well). However, at the early stages of the occupation, Iraqi Shiites were split between the mainstream and traditionally pro-Iranian parties like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), which has been the largest party in parliament, and Al-Dawa, which has had both constitutionally appointed prime ministers, on the one hand, and the insurgent movement led by Muqtada Sadr which was both anti-American and, to some extent at least, anti-Iranian. Since Sadr has both disarmed and personally relocated to Iran, he and his movement have obviously been successfully domesticated by the Iranian regime. But at the same time, there are real questions about where the traditionally pro-Iranian groups that dominate the Iraqi parliament and cabinet now find themselves in the regional context, split between a vital alliance with American forces that undergird the government and long-standing and ideological connections to Tehran.

In other words, traditionally pro-Iranian Iraqi parties now in power in Baghdad find themselves with the responsibilities of running Iraq, a country with complex ethnic and sectarian interests and that is not necessarily a natural ally of Iran but perhaps more obviously a rival. This is further complicated by the fact that the United States and many Sunni Arab nationalists and Islamists in Iraq have formed an alliance (“the awakening,” etc.) that is ostensibly aimed at Al Qaeda but is hard not to interpret as also a joint hedge against complete Shiite, and possibly Iranian-inspired, dominance in the whole country, or at least the non-Kurdish areas, through the Iraqi army and other forces following the withdrawal of American troops.

The Iranian dilemma in Iraq has been that while it is utterly delighted with the principal effects of the invasion and occupation — the removal of the despised Saddam Hussein and the acquisition of power by long-standing allies of Tehran — the overriding fact of the domineering American presence in the country is unacceptable both in terms of Iranian ambitions in Iraq and in terms of a perceived threat from large numbers of American forces being based on both the western border in Iraq and the eastern border in Afghanistan, even if they are bogged down in both cases in ongoing conflicts. Therefore, the delicate task Iran has had to pursue in Iraq has been to do as much as possible to harass the American position, making it uncomfortable and even untenable in order to promote an early US withdrawal, but without bringing about a generalized collapse of the system or a civil war that would undermine the rule of its traditional allies.

Iraq and Iran, I noted above, are probably not natural allies, and are more likely destined for some kind of renewed rivalry in the foreseeable future, but they certainly need not be mortal enemies. The development of what would appear to be more independent and Iraq-centered attitudes on the part of traditionally pro-Iranian parties in the Iraqi government can only be regarded as a healthy development. Thus far, Iran has restricted its ambitions in Iraq to supporting its allies, whether traditional or new-found, and harassing the United States in an effort to get the Americans to leave. As long as Iran continues to believe that a total breakdown or a full-scale civil war in Iraq is not in its interests, its policies in Iraq will continue to inspire anxiety but not complete panic in non-Shiite communities in that country and more generally in the Arab world.

Contemporary attitudes towards Iran among Sunni Arabs are therefore composed of a volatile mix of admiration, anxiety, envy, fear, warmth, hostility and fascination. Such an overdetermined mix of sentiments and policies itself contributes to a certain degree of volatility, laying a framework for either improved or deteriorating relations, in both cases either dramatically or subtly. A vast array of scenarios are plausible. I have tried to demonstrate the complexity of the relationship between the Arab world and Iran from the various Arab points of view, not in order to reach any half-baked conclusions or make any supercilious predictions. It’s a tall enough order to sketch out the lay of the land, not in all but only in some of its myriad complexity. I hope I’ve been able to accomplish that here today.