ForeignPolicy.com has been been the venue for an interesting exchange between David Pollock, a senior fellow at the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
It began yesterday when David Pollock wrote a post which challenged the findings of a Zogby International poll and posits the results “must be considered an unreliable outlier unless some compelling new supporting evidence emerges.” Other analysts have been citing the results as confirmation that Obama’s perceived accommodations to Israel have driven Arab populations to increasingly support Iran’s nuclear program. (See last month’s on LobeLog.)
Pollock charges that the Zogby poll’s findings—which he summarizes as “an astonishing 50-point net shift” from 2009 to 2010 towards the opinion that “Iranian nuclear weapons would have a positive or negative effect on the Middle East”—don’t fit with the results of a number of other opinion polls which asked Arab populations about Iran. He argues there is no causal relationship between Arab perception that Obama has been too soft on Israel and the Zogby Poll’s evidence of increasing support for Iran’s nuclear program among Arab populations.
But since last autumn, when Obama reached a public compromise with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the hot-button issue of Israeli settlements, a number of different polls have measured Arab attitudes toward Iran. In every case but one, these surveys have consistently demonstrated heavily negative views of Iran, its nuclear program, and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The mistake of Telhami, and other analysts, is to rely on a single 2010 Zogby poll to make their judgement, rather than considering the full range of polling on the issue.
So the overall scorecard reads as follows: Since November 2009, four independent, credible polls have shown heavily negative Arab views of Iran, Ahmadinejad, and Iran’s nuclear program. Only one poll reported relatively positive views. Arabs may be disillusioned with Obama, but if they object to the United States taking a harder line toward the Islamic Republic, they sure aren’t telling the pollsters.
Telhami, who directed the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, shot back today, writing that Pollock fundamentally misunderstood the poll’s results. He noted the huge divergence in polling results, particularly in Egypt, might have much to do with when the different polls were conducted. The Pew poll was conducted from April 12 through May 3; the Zogby poll from June 29 to July 20.
What happened in between? The Gaza Flotilla incident, which significantly affected public attitudes on a number of related issues. And it is not a surprise that anything related to Gaza would have more impact in Egypt than elsewhere in the Arab world given its proximity and the fact that Egypt controlled it from 1948-1967. In addition, there was also increased talk about a proposal for a nuclear free zone in Middle East which highlighted Israel’s nuclear program, through a campaign led by Egypt and the Arab League, which is headquartered in Cairo. On May 28, there was a seeming breakthrough when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference called for taking up the issue of creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East in 2012, in a move supported by the Arabs states, the U.S. — and Iran. Israel, which is not a signatory to the treaty, was concerned, and there were subsequent reports that the U.S. was having second thoughts about favoring the move. A good part of the Arab public’s attitudes towards Iran’s program is a function of the constant “double standard” argument one hears in the Arab world. My own sense is that if I were to give respondents the option of choosing elimination of all nuclear weapons, including Israel’s, and preventing any state from acquiring them in the future, there is a good chance that a majority of Arabs polled would support that. So the events between May and July 2010 likely had a substantial impact on public attitudes on this issue. In fact, it would be surprising if they had not.
The central thrust of the findings on Iran is that Arab public attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program are in good part a function of their views toward Israel and the U.S. Certainly these attitudes vary from country to country based on proximity to Iran and the Sunni-Shiite divide and old Arab-Persian divide. But when Arabs in the six countries studied are asked to identify in an open question the two counties that pose the biggest threat to them, the vast majority of those polled identify Israel first, the United States second, and Iran third-by far. That’s the dynamic from which Iran benefits. The surest way to isolate Iran among the Arab public is to successfully mediate lasting Arab-Israeli peace.