Who's isolated?

Raising profound questions about argument that Iran is becoming isolated in Mideast


Who's isolated?
by Flynt and Hillary Leverett

We have argued for some time that the policy debate about Iran here in the United States is distorted by a number of "myths" -- myths about the Islamic Republic, its foreign policy, and its domestic politics. We were reminded of this by Jim Hoagland's column Sunday in the Washington Post -- particularly the passage in which he chastises President Obama for citing sanctions "as the cause of unrest" in Iran. In Hoagland's view, this reading "does a disservice to the humanity of Iran's simmering revolt," which is playing the "dominant role in the popular uprising" that is taking place in the Islamic Republic. We certainly agree that the Obama administration is exaggerating the impact of sanctions, but it surpasses understanding that Hoagland is citing the Green movement as the cause of "unrest" and a "popular uprising" that is supposedly going on in Iran right now.

One of the more dangerous myths currently affecting America's Iran debate is the proposition that, through concerted diplomatic action, the United States can isolate the Islamic Republic, both regionally and internationally.

-The proposition that the Islamic Republic can be isolated within its regional environment rests on an unchallenged but deeply flawed assumption that, given its "Persian" (or at least non-Arab) and Shi'a identities, Iran is bound to be viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, by the Middle East's (largely Sunni) Arab population.

-This proposition also rests on an assumption that the United States can play on anti-Iranian suspicion and hostility to isolate the Islamic Republic from its regional neighbors.

The idea that Washington has a serious and strategically productive option to isolate Iran in its region is, of course, not new -- it is reflected in efforts by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations to forge a regional coalition to "contain" Iran, encompassing "moderate" Sunni Arab states along with Israel. But this notion has gained greater traction recently, alongside claims of "rumblings" -- to use President Obama's word -- that new sanctions are beginning to stimulate domestic political pressure on Iranian leaders. Just last month, the usually quite sound Marc Lynch argued that:

Overall Tehran has become considerably weaker in the Middle East under Obama's watch. Much of the air has gone out of Iran's claim to head a broad "resistance" camp, with Obama's Cairo outreach temporarily shifting the regional debate and then with Turkey emerging as a much more attractive leader of that trend. The botched Iranian election badly harmed Tehran's image among those Arabs who prioritize democratic reforms and has produced a flood of highly critical scrutiny of Iran across the Arab media. Arab leaders continue to be suspicious and hostile towards Iran... Public opinion surveys and Arab media commentary alike now reveal little sympathy for the Iranian regime, compared to previous years... while Iran may continue to doggedly pursue its nuclear program (as far as we know), this has not translated into steadily increasing popular appeal or regional power. Quite the contrary.

There is no specific sourcing for any of the claims made in this passage. However, a number of commentators arguing that Iran is becoming increasingly unpopular in its regional environment drew support from this year's iteration of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project released in June and based on polls conducted in 22 countries around the world during April and May. In the six Muslim-majority countries included in the Project (Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey), a majority of the population in four (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) reportedly had an "unfavorable" view of Iran; only in two of the Muslim-majority countries surveyed (Indonesia and Pakistan) did a majority of the population have a "favorable" view of Iran. Likewise, majorities in five of the six Muslim-majority countries reportedly viewed Iran's nuclear program as a potential threat; only in Pakistan was the Iranian nuclear program and the prospect of an "Iranian bomb" (which, of course, the Iranian government denies it is seeking) viewed favorably.

We had doubts at the time about some of the results in the Pew survey. For example, with regard to a majority of Lebanese reportedly having an "unfavorable" view of Iran -- if one broke down the Lebanese numbers according to sectarian identity, a majority of Lebanese Muslims had a favorable view of Iran, while 83 percent of Lebanese Christians had an unfavorable view. Demographics alone mean that the overwhelming majority of those Lebanese Christians holding an unfavorable view of Iran are Maronite. It seems highly likely that the Pew pollsters over-weighted Maronite Christians in their Lebanese sample. (Of course, "over-weighting" Maronites is something that the Lebanese political system has been doing for decades, with sustained support from the United States and Europe.) Likewise, the data showed appreciable support for Iran's nuclear program in some Arab populations where one might not have expected to see that -- e.g., roughly 40 percent of Jordanians supported Iran's nuclear program, even though Jordanians have been exposed to a steady stream of criticism of Iran's nuclear efforts from the Jordanian government.

But now an important poll has come out raising real questions about what the Pew survey was measuring -- and, more importantly, raising profound questions about the argument that Iran is becoming isolated in its regional environment. Last week, Shibley Telhami released the results of his 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which he conducts annually with Zogby International. Over the years, we have found Telhami's polling studies on Arab public opinion to be carefully conducted, with scrupulously presented results and, often, important insights. We would also note that Telhami -- who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland and is a non-resident fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution -- can hardly be dismissed as a "pro-Iranian" voice.

The results from this year's Arab Public Opinion Poll can hardly be comforting for those who want to believe that the Islamic Republic is becoming estranged from its regional neighbors and that Arabs are ready to stand side-by-side with Israelis to support military action (by Israel and/or the United States) against Iranian nuclear targets. The poll was conducted in late June and July in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon -- these countries were also included in the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project -- Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. With regard to the Iranian nuclear issue:

-Among the respondents, a majority -- 57 percent -- believes that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons (which, once again, the Iranian government denies it is seeking). However, an even larger majority of these entirely Arab respondents -- 77 percent -- believes that Iran has the right to pursue its nuclear program; only 20 percent agree that Iran should be pressured by the international community to stop the program. (By way of comparison, the finding that 77 percent of Arabs believe that Iran has a right to pursue its nuclear program is up from 53 percent in 2009.)

-In Egypt and Morocco, huge majorities among those who believe that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons -- 81 percent and 84 percent, respectively -- believe that Iran has the right to pursue such a program. In Saudi Arabia, the population that believes Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons is evenly divided, 50 percent to 50 percent, on this question.

-These data set the stage for one of the most remarkable findings in this year's Arab Public Opinion Poll: 57 percent of the respondents believe that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a positive outcome for the region; 20 percent believe this would not matter one way or the other, while only 21 percent believes this would be a negative outcome for the region. (By way of comparison, the finding that 57 percent of Arabs believe that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a positive outcome for the region is up from 29 percent last year.)

This is truly remarkable. In six Arab countries where the ruling authorities have devoted a lot of effort in recent years telling their people that the Islamic Republic aspires to regional hegemony, is seeking nuclear weapons, and that this would be a bad outcome for Arab interests -- local Arab populations are not buying the argument. Even Marc Lynch had to acknowledge that "there is very little support here for the notion that Arabs are secretly yearning for the United States to attack Iran. Really little." This bolsters our assessment that, however much some Sunni Arab elites -- and we suspect it is not all that many -- may want to see Iran "cut down to size," there is little popular support for confrontation with the Islamic Republic on the Arab street.

In fact, with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue and perceptions of the Islamic Republic as a "threat," the trend in Arab public opinion over time is running in the opposite direction from that desired by most major Arab governments. (We wonder what public opinion is like on these questions in Syria? In Iraq? In Qatar? Or among Gazans and other Palestinians living under Israeli occupation?) Asked to name the two countries in the world that pose the biggest threat, 88 percent of the Arab respondents in Telhami's 2010 poll named Israel and 77 percent named the United States -- the top two "winners" on this question, by orders of magnitude over any other country. By way of comparison, only 10 percent of respondents cited Iran as one of the two countries in the world posing the biggest threat. (That is down from 13 percent last year. This year, incidentally, the same percentage of respondents that viewed Iran as a threat -- 10 percent -- also cited Algeria as a threat.)

And, for those who claim that, as Lynch put it, there is now "little sympathy for the Iranian regime, compared to previous years," we would challenge them to explain these findings:

-Asked to name the world leader that they admire most, 12 percent of the Arab respondents in Telhami's poll cited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is up from six percent last year.

-That 12 percent result makes Ahmadinejad the third-most admired leader in the Arab world -- after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (with 20 percent) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (with 13 percent). In 2009, according to the Arab Public Opinion Poll, Ahmadinejad was tied with Hezbollah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as the fourth-most admired leader among Arabs, after Chavez, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and former French President Jacques Chirac. In 2008, Ahmadinejad was the third-most admired leader in the Arab world, after Chavez and Assad.

Where is the enormous decline in Ahmadinejad's popular standing in the Arab world? Where is the sharp deterioration in the Islamic Republic's image in the Arab world?

If Americans want to find a big "loser" in this year's Arab Public Opinion Poll, the results identify him quite clearly -- President Barack Obama.

-According to Telhami's data, the percentage of Arabs with a positive view of the United States has plummeted since last year -- from 45 percent to 20 percent -- while the percentage with a negative view of the United States has soared from 23 percent to 67 percent.

-Last year, 51 percent of Telhami's respondents were "hopeful" about the Obama administration's Middle East policy; this year, only 16 percent are hopeful, while 63 percent describe themselves as "discouraged." Interestingly, in a separate question, 51 percent of respondents said that they had an unfavorable view of Obama and were pessimistic about his foreign policy; 38 percent said they had a favorable view of Obama personally but doubted that "the American system would allow him to have a successful foreign policy."

-Perhaps most strikingly, only two percent of this year's respondents described themselves as holding a "very favorable" attitude toward the United States; this is down from the four percent that had a "very favorable" attitude toward the United States in 2008 -- the last year of George W. Bush's presidency.

With those numbers, it is truly surreal for the Obama administration and its supporters -- or neoconservative commentators -- to be extolling how badly isolated the Islamic Republic of Iran is becoming in the broader Middle East.

First published in HuffingtonPost.com. A version of this post will also appear on www.RaceForIran.com



Hogland, Si !, Leverettes, ????como?

by bushtheliberator on

  " a popular upriseing' that is SUPPOSEDLY TAKING PLACE IN IRAN .."  (CAPITAL LETTERS MINE ).

I leave it to you locals to analyze the Leverettes' agenda,

but to deny the centrality of the Green movement in Iranian affairs is just such  nonsense, that it calls the Leverettes intentions,& judgement into question.



by Boomerang on

Abarmard the bullshit artist extraordinaire, your IRI cheerleading is a **disgrace** to your birth certificate, that is if you're even Iranian.


 Iran is a prisoner of IRI


Sargord BitterBitterQajar

by Boomerang on

Sargord BitterBitterQajar who is still stinging in his skivvies about the demise of the Qajar Dynasty, writes, "That is to say, I live in the real world, not the make believe world."

No, BBQ, you don't live in the real world, you live in a turdhole of your own petty failures. Once in a while you manage to pull your empty noodle out of your backside and rejoice over the stale satisfaction that the Pahlavis are no longer in power. That makes your day, then you stick your meathead back into your backside and jump up and down like humpty dumpty.

Even if Iran was being run by the Tudeh, you'd still be humpty dumpty writing the same asinine BS because you don't care who governs Iran or how Iran it's run, so long as it's not done so by a Pahlavi. Some of you Qajars went to work for the Pahlavis, to be sure, but almost all of you harbored treasonous resentment toward the two Pahlavi kings.

People should view this clown's comments in this light, then it would make more sense why he's such a bombastic cheerleader for the IRI. It was the IRI that destroyed the Pahlavi Dynasty. That makes this pathetic, bitter, small-small man-child with a man-sized case of Oghdeh tickled three shades of pink, even if it means the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iranian lives, not to mention the slow death of Iran.


 Iran is a prisoner of IRI


Yes Bavafa

by Abarmard on

And overall Flynt and Hillary Leverett concerns are about US policy towards Iran. They believe that US has gotten it wrong and they are not listening to signs that can help both countries. In many respects they are correct and their objective is clear.



One can say much to

by Bavafa on

One can say much to discredit the author of this article, but not much about its content and the result of the polls. All of these despite much concentrated effort by the poppet government (tribes) who are only to serve the US interest.


P.S. The Arabs support for Iranian nuclear technology does not change the fact that IRI is a dictatorial regime and therefore illegitimate.


I don't hate Iran for Gods sake

by Escape on

How does one come to that conclusion? There is alot of things I don't like about how Iran's govt acts and treats people and how some Iranians act but to dare to call criticism of the country hating it,is one of those things I do hate.


Stupid and arrogant

by seamorgh on

arrogant:  having or showing an exaggerated opinion of one's own importance, merit, or ability

Collins English Dictionary


Interesting article

by Abarmard on

I read it first at huffington post. The result of those pols are very interesting. I wonder if US politicians care about them.


no use reading

by shushtari on

this nonsense......these two stooges have no clue about iran or the sentiments of its wonderful people....


and it's no surprise, that the usual suspect come out of their holes to clap for these morons


javid iran 

Niloufar Parsi

sad to see

by Niloufar Parsi on

so many iran-haters on this site.



Real world!!

by kazem0574 on

You carry on living in your real world, unfortunately for you, soon you will wake up and find it to be virtual reality. Those running Iran today and those following them blindly are the only Anti Iran elements.

Sargord Pirouz

Hate to break the news to

by Sargord Pirouz on

Hate to break the news to you, Kazem. Whether you like it or not, there's only one Iran in this world. And that one Iran is the one you're against. Hence, you're anti-Iran.

Myself, I am not anti-Iran.I accept it for what it is, politically and socially.

That is to say, I live in the real world, not the make believe world. 


You mean Anti IRI, its nothing to do with being Anti Iran

by kazem0574 on

No one on this site is anti Iran, most of us are Anti IRI. The oppressed Arab people on the street hate their governments and think IRI is different. Wait till they get a IRI regime for themselves then you see who supports what.

Sargord Pirouz

This article by the

by Sargord Pirouz on

This article by the Leveretts was a response to the recent findings of the 2010 Arab public opinion poll.

Once again, the realist position on Iran policy is proven correct. 

Every one of the Leveretts' post at Race for Iran is a veritable gold mine of information and analysis.

Of course, these consistently reliable analyses are a real source of pain for anti-Iran cheerleaders.


The Fraudulent Flynts...

by Boomerang on

"a majority -- 57 percent -- believes that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons (which, once again, the Iranian government denies it is seeking)."

The IRI also denies it had anything to do with the Neda killing. They can deny all they want, but who believes a gang of rapists, thieves and murderers but for a crowd of vultures hoping for monetary gain like yourselves?

I wonder how much money your energy consulting firm stands to gain from your seemingly undying passion for IRI negotiations??? You two are like a couple of sad, pathetic, desperate, despicable, disgraceful, deplorable prostitutes. I know if there is a hell, the two of you will burn mercilously one day. In that thought, oddly enough, I find a measure of peace in your fraudulent existence.

 Iran is a prisoner of IRI


They have been

by seamorgh on

right over and over again while others have been wrong and wrong over and over again. It got to hurt to be wrong for some 30 years and counting...


Isfahan mansion

by Fred on

Now this is a couple for services rendered to the Islamist Rapists do deserve the Isfahan mansion Frye got and much more