One of the dominant narratives surrounding the Iran nuclear negotiations has been that most Arab countries are adamantly opposed to Iran’s regional rise.
At the elite level, there is widespread evidence showing that Arab countries – especially those in the Persian Gulf – are deeply concerned about the recent agreement that paves the way for dismantling the Western sanctions regime and may ultimately allow Iran to become a nuclear power.
But far less is known about popular sentiment toward Iran across the region.
I direct the Arab Barometer, a project that offers unique insight into attitudes of ordinary citizens in 12 Arab countries toward Iran.
The nationally representative surveys, conducted from 2012 to 2014, reveal that ordinary Arab citizens are far from united in their concerns about Iran.
In many countries across the region, substantial minorities favor developing stronger economic and security relations with Iran. So how to explain these differences and what is their significance?
Who thinks what?
Unsurprisingly, Shia Muslims hold far more favorable views of Iran (which is predominately Shia) than do Sunni Muslims. Nevertheless, very few Arab citizens – whether Sunni or Shia – believe that the US’s top priority in the region should be containing Iran.
Overall, attitudes toward relations with Iran are mixed.
The Arab Barometer asked respondents whether they wanted economic relations with Iran to grow stronger, to remain the same or to become weaker in the years to come.
In five of the 12 countries surveyed, minorities of at least 40% favored developing stronger economic ties with Iran. Support is highest in Sudan (54%), a predominately Sunni country, followed by Lebanon and Iraq, which have substantial Shia minorities. Moreover, in Kuwait, the only Gulf Cooperation Council country surveyed, a substantial percentage (41%) favor building stronger economic ties with Iran.
By contrast, fewer than one-quarter of citizens in predominately Sunni Egypt, Libya or Jordan say the same.
Not only are many citizens open to economic relations with Iran, but many also favor strengthening security relations between their country and Iran. At least 40% want improved security relations in Sudan, Iraq, Palestine and Kuwait.
Again, citizens in predominately Sunni countries, especially those in North African countries that are geographically remote from Iran such as Egypt and Algeria, are far less likely to want stronger security ties.
Sectarian divides in opinion within countries
Not unexpectedly, among Sunnis and Shias living in the same country, there exist large opinion gaps.
Across the 12 countries we surveyed, three contain large enough samples of both Sunnis and Shias for analysis: Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
In all three, majorities of Shias favor strengthening economic relations with Iran, including 73% in Lebanon and 63% in Iraq. By contrast, fewer than one-quarter of Sunnis in each country say the same.
There is a similar sectarian divide regarding strengthening security relations with Iran. Shias are far more likely than their Sunni counterparts to want improved ties. At least half of Shias in all three countries favor stronger security relations compared with 20% or fewer Sunnis.
What is striking, at least among Lebanese Shias, is that the desire for stronger security relations is significantly less than the support for stronger economic relations (a difference of eight points). Lebanese Shia, in other words, are more interested in economic benefits than in improved military relations with Iran.
Fearful of Iran’s rise, many leaders in the region have urged the US to continue its policy of containing Iran.
However, very few ordinary citizens favor this policy.
The Arab Barometer asked respondents what would be the best policy the US could pursue in the region from a range of options, including promoting democracy, promoting development, containing Iran or solving the Arab–Israeli conflict.
In all 12 countries surveyed, fewer than 10% say the US should contain Iran. By contrast, in all 12 countries, one-quarter or more say the US should not interfere in the region at all, including more than half in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.
Moreover, sectarian differences make relatively little difference. In Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, no more than 15% of Sunnis say the US should prioritize containing Iran.
These results challenge the narrative that Arab countries are uniform in their fear of Iran.
There is a clear division between the views of many Arab regimes and the populations they govern. On the whole, Arab citizens are far more open to improved relations with Iran than are their governments.
And although Shias tend to be more supportive of improved relations with Iran than Sunnis, views of Sunnis vary widely across the region. In fact, citizens in Sudan, a predominately Sunni country, are more supportive of stronger ties with Iran than those in any other country surveyed. Most likely, the higher levels of support in Sudan for strengthening relations with Iran are the product of similarities that transcend the sectarian divide; both counties are self-styled Islamic states and each has long been subjected to US sanctions.
Yet, even among Arab citizens who may oppose Iran’s regional rise, very few want the US to continue a policy of containment toward Iran.
It is not fully clear if these same citizens would prefer Arab countries to counter growing Iranian influence or if containing Iran is simply not a major priority for most citizens.
In either case, these results suggest that ordinary Arab citizens are likely to be more open to the Iran nuclear deal that was reached in Vienna on July 14 than are their leaders.