Do Arab Rulers and Publics Think the Same About Iran’s Nuclear Program?

By Chen KaneI find public opinion polls highly problematic, especially when conducted in non-democratic states. Aside from the multiple “technical” issues of designing “objective” questions and gathering a representative sample of the population, the answers of those surveyed in closed societies could be biased and influenced by concerns about the identity of the pollsters, the purpose of the survey, and the likelihood that anonymity will not be respected.

These concerns caused my hesitation about writing on the latest Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project. But then again Pew is one of the most respected polling centers in the world, and if anyone should know how to poll, it should be them. Also, the poll has some relevance to the ongoing round of nuclear talks in Moscow between the P-5+1 and Iran, so it got me curious.

Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know what some officials in the Arab world think or are willing to say behind closed doors. “We are all terrified,” said former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to a U.S. congressional delegation, “and Egypt might be forced to begin its own nuclear weapons program if Iran succeeds in those efforts.” Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, believed that all hell will break loose if Iran attains the bomb, while King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the United States to attack Iran and ‘[cut] off the head of the snake’ before it is too late. Similarly, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain said: “That program must be stopped…. The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.”

Relations between rulers and publics are increasingly strained in the Arab states and the question I was most interested in is whether the positions expressed by Arab leaders are shared by the citizenry. The answer, at least based on the findings of the newest Pew poll, seems to be mostly yes. Zogby’s latest poll, Arab Attitudes toward Iran, found similar findings.

The Pew poll surveyed 21 nations, of which five are from the Middle East – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey. The survey was conducted face-to-face in the Arabic and Turkish languages between March and April 2012, involving 1,000 people in each of the regional countries, and the data produced involved a margin of error of 3.5%. It is worth mentioning that Pew has been polling on the Iranian nuclear issue as part of its Global Attitude survey since 2006. 

The survey shows that 76% of Jordanians, 66% of Egyptians and 54% of Turks oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, while Tunisians are divided on this question, with 42% in favor and 43% against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Question: “Would you favor or oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons”

Interestingly enough, there is little correlation between opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and threat perception. The majority of Lebanese and Egyptians (57% and 54% respectively) see a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat. 55% Jordanians and 57% Tunisians do not share these perceptions, despite Jordan’s overwhelming popular opposition to Iran’s potential acquisition of such weapons.

It seems that while Jordanians do not feel their country is threatened directly by Iran possessing the bomb, they are concerned by the regional implications of a nuclear armed-Iran. Therefore, Jordanians are against Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities.

Question: If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, would this represent a very serious threat to our country, a somewhat serious threat, a minor threat, or no threat at all?

As for what measures should be used to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, of those who opposed, most also supported tougher economic sanctions against Iran (74% of Lebanese, 70% of Egyptians and 68% of Jordanians surveyed). Most of the Turks surveyed (52%) are against tougher sanctions, probably owing to trade and energy interdependence between Turkey and Iran.

Question: Do you approve or disprove of tougher international economic sanctions on Iran to try to stop it from developing nuclear weapons? 

When those opposing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons were asked, which is more important, in their opinion – preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it meant taking military action, or avoiding military conflict with Iran, even if it meant that Iran may develop nuclear weapons – most Jordanians (50%), Lebanese (46%) and Egyptians (52%) identified preventing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as a priority even if meant taking military action. In contrast, the majority of Turks (42%) preferred to avoid armed confrontation, even if it meant a new nuclear-armed state in their neighborhood.

Question: In their opinion which is more important: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it meant taking military action, OR avoiding a military conflict with Iran, even if it means they may develop nuclear weapons? 

I am tempted to conclude that based on this poll’s results a majority in the Arab countries surveyed are concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, perceive it as a threat (even if not a direct one), and would be willing to support sanctions and even military force to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.

Of course, my problem with polls has not disappeared all of a sudden and I still think we may be able the get exact opposite results if the questions are asked slightly differently. However, since both Pew and Zogby identify similar trends, I believe we should further explore whether and why Iran may be perceived as a threat by some Arab states and their public and what they think should be done about it. The Arab states can conveniently sit still while negotiations with Iran are conducted by the West. But if no agreement is reached, the big question leaders and people in the region should ask themselves is what they can do if Iran continues to develop its nuclear program and possibly gets the bomb?