By Ali Hussein Bakeer
A favorable image of Iran, once widely held in the Arab world, has started to erode in the last few years and since the beginning of 2011, it has deteriorated sharply. This is because the wave of unrest in the streets of the Arab world has been accompanied by a major shift in perceptions of Iran. An overwhelming majority of Arab public opinion now seems to view Iran unfavorably.
Iran is an issue which is intensively discussed in the Arab world mainly due to two major reasons related to the way Tehran introduces itself to the region and the way Arab perceives it. Specialists who follow Iranian affairs note that there is no single standard perception of Iran in the Arab world and that indeed perceptions vary from country to country and sometimes within one country.
Usually, there are two basic categories for popular views on Iran among ordinary Arabs. One group regards Iran as the main destabilizing actor in the region; it takes a negative view of Iran because it tries to foster its influence among the states of the region by illegal means and the use of force and they therefore believe that it constitutes a threat to their national security. The other group however regards Iran as a country which defends the rights of the oppressed and those suffering repression, particularly the Palestinians, and thus also Arab interests, an enemy of Israel, and a country which stands up to the West.
Taking this into consideration, we will notice that geography plays an important role in shaping these different perceptions. The closer the Arab countries to Iran, the more the negative perception of it, and vice versa. There are seven Arab countries which are close neighbors of Iran. Comparison between them and Tehran shows that five of them have much smaller land area and territories and very few population. So it is natural for those countries to fear Iran especially with the hostile policies of Tehran towards them, the factor that drives them to consider Iran as a threat.
While most of Iran’s larger Arab neighbors seem not to have such anxieties, they are highly sensitive about the interventions which Tehran is engaging in their region scale because they know the scale and force involved. Countries which are relatively bigger and further from Iran have fewer anxieties of this kind.
Arab countries that are geographically close to Tehran are more aware of Iran, its policies, and the tools Tehran uses to fulfill its agenda. Countries which are both geographically and politically remote from it tend to have a much simpler and rather superficial understanding of it. This situation mirrors popular perceptions of Iran in these countries. In countries that are close to it, public opinion generally regards Iran as a bad neighbor, a negative perception arising from Iran’s attitudes especially that Iran’s policies feed such a negative perception which Iran itself does nothing to help overcome. Remote countries from Iran don’t have such a negative perception usually.
In countries close to Iran, there are large Shi’a populations compared to the more distant ones. Naturally this directly affects the Arab perspective on Tehran. In countries with Shi’a minorities, perceptions of Iran tend to be more unfavorable than those which have none. The reason for this is that Iran uses their Shi’a population to support its foreign policy and encourages sectarian divisions, and this is the source of divisions in their societies. Countries without Shi’a minorities experience less Iranian interference and people there know less about the Shi’ism factor or have only a superficial knowledge, and as a result their perceptions of Iran tend to be favorable or at least less unfavorable.
In the light of all this, one may say that the Arabs, especially prior to the Arab Spring, held differing views of Iran.
The Persian Factor
Iranians consider themselves as a nation possessing a civilization that is thousands of years old and stretches back even to before Islam and one which could rule the region and establish a nation. They believe that this gives them the right to exercise this imagined “superiority” through hegemony at least on the regional level. The Arabs believe that Iran’s rulers didn’t abandon these ideas throughout the regimes from Shah to Khomeini to Khamenei. Consequently the Arabs generally have negative perceptions of Iran through this lens, and the country is not accepted by Arab public opinion.
The Shia Factor
The Arab in general considers that the regime in Tehran is using its Islamic identity as a mask to conceal its national Persian imperialist tendencies in the region, and the Shi’ism is just a shield to protect Iran from integration with the region and to boost its interference ability in the countries with Shi’a minorities. For at times when Iran’s national interests are involved, it can be seen that Islam is not an important element in the equation, and both former and recent experience of Iranian history confirm this. But this fact does not prevent Iran from being able to exploit the sectarian factor which it strives to make use of as much as possible.
However in recent years, Iran has succeeded in reducing the negative image it has in Arab eyes through a number of policies furthering its plans for the region. Most important of them:
- The anti-American anti-Western Rhetoric: Because of its anti-American and anti-Western discourse, Iran managed to win over a large section of Arab public opinion. Tehran is aware of the general prickliness of Arab public opinion towards the West and is exploiting this sensitivity and using it for regional expansion and a way of strengthening its soft power in the Arab world.
- Demagogic rhetoric regarding Israel: In the same way, the demagogic language that it has developed against Israel is capable of attracting a large section of Arab public opinion to it and it uses this, referring to it as the struggle against Israel, to create a suitable basis for getting itself accepted in the Arab world.
Thanks to its radical discourse, Iran has been able to succeed in the last few years in influencing Islamists (particularly Muslim Brotherhood), leftists, and even Arab nationalists. The end of 2006, in particular, was a time when Arab public opinion felt considerable sympathy for Iran and even supported it in many cases. Many people at that time considered the Iranian leader Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah were the most popular leaders in the Arab world.
However in the subsequent period, Iran’s image in the Arab world once more began to be tarnished and at the start of 2011 it was seriously damaged. The eruption of the Arab Spring led to a change in perceptions of Iran and an overwhelming majority of Arab public opinion was now united in an unfavorable view of Iran. Many factors contributed this:
1- Iranian policy in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Kuwait created the negative impression of a country struggling to obtain influence over Arab lands and even trying to make use of these countries in its bargaining with the West.
2- The presidential elections in Iran 2009 and the events which followed it and afterwards strengthened the negative image of Iran in the eyes of both ordinary Arab people and ruling elites. Arab public opinion began to regard Iran as a theocratic state with no respect for liberty, which paid no attention to the law and oppressed its own people, while being rife with corruption and fraud.
3- Discrepancy between words and deeds of Iran plays an important role in shaping Arab perceptions as well. Bargains between Iran and USA in Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to various scandals emerged such as secret dealings with Israel like the Ofer case made it clear that there was a disparity between Iran’s words and its actions. Arabs, who had previously supported Iran, now understood that it was using discourse of this kind as a means to protect its own interests.
4- Iran’s stance on the Arab revolutions also had a negative impact. It was Iran’s stance on the Arab revolutions and events in Syria and Bahrain in particular that shook Tehran’s credibility in the eyes of ordinary people. Iran supported the Assad regime in Syria but encouraged sectarian divisions in Bahrain. So there was a manifest contradiction with its slogans about the need to stand up for people suffering oppression and harsh rule, and for Muslims to be united. Many surveys support this analysis.
To conclude, a point has been reached where Arab public opinion no longer views Iran mainly within the framework of its stand on the Palestinian issue or its opposition to the West.
Instead, it now views Iran within a framework of values linked to the Arab revolutions, particularly civil liberties, democracy, justice, transparency, honesty, and fairness towards opponents.
However it is clear that the instruments which Iran has made use of—anti-Western and anti-American language and exploitation of the Palestinian cause—will continue to be important in the future.
This article was first published in October issue of USAK’s monthly journal ANALIST.