by Joel Brinkley
For so many years, Iran has been a popular neighbor among most Arab states, largely because of its unremitting hostility toward Israel and the West.
But now, the tables have turned, and its past behavior counts for nothing. Iran has lost the friendship and support of almost every Arab and Muslim state, leaving it as one the least liked nations in the world. Its only true competitor for that title right now seems to be North Korea.
Paradoxically, it would seem, while Iran's popularity has plummeted, America's has risen.
These conclusions come from a comprehensive new survey by Zogby Research Services, just made public. Zogby pollsters interviewed 20,051 average Muslim citizens in 20 nations, from Azerbaijan to Yemen and most every state in between. Of all those countries, the only two that generally support Iran are Iraq, another largely Shiite state, and Lebanon, home to Hezbollah.
Most people in the region have also turned decidedly against Iran's nuclear program.
"Back in 2006," the survey says, "when Iran was seen as the bastion of resistance to the West, their nuclear ambitions were supported and defended." But today, "there is virtually no support for Iran's nuclear ambitions" and "widespread support for sanctions" -- though not for military action.
What caused this 180-degree change of opinion? The Syrian war and Iran's fervent effort to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with weapons, manpower and military guidance. That has alienated almost everyone in the region, where almost no one supports Assad.
Earlier, in many states support for Iran among the general public was in defiance of government views. But now they're in synch. Don't forget that the Arab League recently demonstrated its disdain for Assad by ceremoniously filling his government's seat with a member of the opposition coalition that's working hard to depose him. At least those states recognize that a leader who mercilessly kills more than 80,000 of his own people, without explanation or apology, does not deserve to remain in power. Significant majorities in nearly all of the states offered visceral opposition to Iran's role in Syria.
In 2006, at least 75 percent of the region's population said it supported Iran. The nation's popularity starting rising precipitously, particularly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now, support has fallen below 25 percent. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabian views have fallen the farthest. In much of that country now, Iran is loathed. Only 15 percent of Saudis support the ayatollahs today -- a steep drop from 85 percent in 2006.
The polling was performed at the end of 2012. One can only imagine how much worse the view would be today after Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Iran-surrogate terror force, declared that it would fight to the death to defend Assad. And now Hezbollah forces are fighting side by side with the Syrian military, helping Assad to make notable gains on the ground.
Why has all of this benefited the United States? Most Arabs still do not consider the U.S. a friendly ally. But residents of all but six of the 20 states -- Oman, Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Libya and Turkey, each with its own story -- affirmatively answered the question: Does the United States contribute to peace and stability in the region?
James Zogby, the polling firm's president, told me he was surprised by that finding, prompting him "to question further."
"In follow-up focus groups where we attempted to find out 'why,' what we learned was that there was hope that a second-term Obama would be able to deliver on the promises that he made in the beginning of his first term" -- principally reducing America's military footprint in the region, closing Guantanamo and pushing for Middle East peace.
But another point deserves attention: Iran and the United States pursue polar-opposite philosophies and goals. (What better way to view that than Iran's disqualification of all the candidates for the presidential election -- except the hard-liners.) So when respect for Iran falls, quite naturally respect for the United States rises.
"Iran preys off of Arab alienation from the West, in particular, the U.S.," Zogby said. "They are seen as two distinct poles -- with the U.S. and its regional allies on one side and Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and company on the other."
Now, it's really up to President Obama to take advantage of this new situation. And making a concerted, even strong-arm effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, as Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to do, would truly work wonders.
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