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Have Arabs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Contrary to a recent and much-discussed poll, Arabs may not be warming to an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

A new poll published August 5 by the University of Maryland, Zogby International, and researcher Shibley Telhami argues that the Arab world has warmed to the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The poll of six Arab countries finds that 57 percent of respondents this year said an Iranian nuke would be a “more positive” development for the region, compared to only 29 percent who gave that answer in 2009 when asked, “If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, [what] is the likely outcome for the Middle East region?” This finding has been widely reported (including by outlets in Iran), yet may paint an incomplete picture of Arab attitudes on a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program. The recent poll diverges from other recent polling of the Arab world. When attempting to understand Arab public opinion, policy makers, the media, and the public should take into account these contradictory polls and the overall difficulty of polling the Arab world.

Among others, Pew Global Attitudes’ June poll arrived at different conclusions from the UMD/Zogby/Telhami poll on this question. In the three countries in which Pew and Telhami polling overlapped—Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon—Pew found that in only one country, Lebanon, citizens became less concerned between 2009 and 2010 about the threat from an Iranian nuclear weapon. This is likely due to the large Shi’a community in Lebanon and the considerable influence of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization in the country. In Egypt and Jordan, the number of people concerned about an Iranian nuclear weapon rose by 5 and 19 points, respectively. Pew also found a slight increase in Egypt in the past year among those opposed to an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and only slight declines in Jordan and Lebanon. Further data on these trends can be seen on the graphs below.

Szrom A

Szrom B

Assuming the Pew numbers for Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan are roughly correct, a dramatic, nearly 30-point shift in Arab support for an Iranian nuclear program could only occur if wide swings took place in the other three countries polled by Telhami—the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. In 2007, Pew found that 42 percent of Moroccan respondents viewed Iran favorably, compared to only 16 percent who saw it unfavorably. Despite how Moroccans seem to favor Iran (and possibly Iran’s nuclear program), it is clear this outlook existed several years before the nearly 30-point shift reported by the Telhami poll. In Saudi Arabia, a November 2009 poll conducted by Pechter Middle East Polls found that 57 percent of respondents supported stronger sanctions against Iran if the Iranian government did “not accept limits on its nuclear program.” The same poll also found that 35 percent of Saudis supported an American military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Other recent polling that included Saudis as well as UAE residents has also displayed continued concern about a nuclear-armed Iran. In a separate November 2009 poll conducted of the Arab world by the Qatar-based Doha Debates, 53 percent of respondents located in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—stated that they thought Iran would launch a nuclear attack upon another country if it acquired nuclear weapons. Twenty-nine percent of all respondents to the Doha Debates poll even thought that the targeted country would be a GCC state, only slightly behind the 30 percent who thought Iran would attack Israel.

There is much more to the story than the widely reported headline that the Arab world has become increasingly comfortable with an Iranian nuclear weapon.

That these polls have reached different conclusions does not necessarily mean that the Telhami poll had serious errors—indeed, it did poll large sample sizes in the six countries it covered. However, it does indicate that there is much more to the story than the widely reported headline that the Arab world has become increasingly comfortable with an Iranian nuclear weapon. The details of the Telhami poll itself reveal trends counter to that overall conclusion: Among the 57 percent of respondents who believed Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, 68 percent in Jordan, 50 percent in Saudi Arabia, 67 percent in Lebanon, and 73 percent in the UAE said that Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear program. Egypt may have been the segment pulling the poll’s overall conclusion on Iranian nuclear weapons in the opposite direction: only 16 percent of the Egyptian respondents who believed Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon believed that the Islamic Republic should halt its program under pressure. If so few Egyptians believed in halting an Iranian nuclear weapons program, it would be a surprising shift from September 2006, when 74 percent of the Egyptian public responded to a BBC World Service/GlobeScan poll with some level of concern (“somewhat” or “very”) about a nuclear-armed Iran.

The graph below compares results from the aforementioned polls to the Telhami poll’s finding that only 21 percent of respondents in 2010, when asked “If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, which of the following is the likely outcome for the Middle East region?” said it would be a “more negative” development for the region. These polls all ask different questions but aim to ascertain similar sentiments regarding an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Szrom C

A large shift in Arab public opinion on an Iranian nuclear weapons program as reported by Telhami would also directly contradict recent anecdotal evidence that indicates some Arab elites have become increasingly concerned about an Iranian nuclear weapons program. In the most recent example of this trend, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States endorsed a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in July, stating that the short-term cost of bombing Iran outweighed the long-term negative impact of a nuclear-armed Iran on the region.

Among the 57 percent of respondents who believed Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, 68 percent in Jordan, 50 percent in Saudi Arabia, 67 percent in Lebanon, and 73 percent in the UAE said that Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear program.

The differences between the Telhami poll and other polls may result from differences in question wording and the general difficulty of correctly polling the residents of autocratic countries such as those in the Middle East. The Telhami poll began its discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons by forcing respondents to choose between stating that Iran has a “right” to its nuclear weapons program and stating that Iran should be pressured to halt its program. For many Arabs, pressure implies Western involvement, thus, the question could have potentially skewed the respondents’ answers on the later query of whether the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be a positive or negative development for the region. Respondents could have answered that question based on how they feel about the West and not on whether they actually think a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten their country. Such individuals may in fact think that a nuclear-armed Iran threatens the Middle East, but believe that pressure to halt an Iranian nuke should come from Arab governments. This could help explain, in particular, the difference between the Telhami poll and the Pew Poll, which asked respondents directly whether they favored or opposed an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Many Middle Eastern governments also place restrictions on the freedom of speech, making accurate polling more difficult and much different than, for example, surveying Americans. This factor could have skewed the Telhami poll or any other recent poll in either direction. This wild card should remind us that we cannot rely upon polls of the Middle East as the absolute ground truth, but should take them as one element of a larger, complicated picture. To help fill the information deficit, we can use datasets such as the Arab Behavioral Index and Arab Reform Index, which, introduced in June 2010, measures such factors as student exchange, trade, UN votes, and other indicators.

Telhami’s findings on the Arab public’s view of Iranian nuclear weapons may be accurate on the specific questions it asked on the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Before policy makers and the media take at face value the conclusion that Arabs are warming to the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, however, they should consider the weight of contradictory evidence, the difficulty of polling the Middle East, and recent anecdotal evidence from the region.

Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project.

FURTHER READING: Robert Haddick discusses Iran in “If War Is Not the Answer…”Michael Rosen describes how “Twitter Takes Tehran,” and Joseph Loconte reviews “Anti-Americanism: Alive and Well in the Age of Obama.” Ali Alfoneh and Ahmad Majidyar outline “Iranian Influence in Afghanistan,” while Szrom elsewhere details “Amhadinejad in West Africa.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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