Media organizations reported last week that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had shifted position on the deadly crackdown in Syria, quoting him as saying in an interview with Portugal’s national broadcaster that “a military solution is never the right solution.”
Although Ahmadinejad’s office on Monday accused “Zionist” media of distorting his comments, Tehran does appear to be becoming more ambivalent towards Syrian President Bashar Assad’s deadly crackdown, with pro-regime media no longer universally echoing Damascus’ line that the violence is solely the result of attacks by “armed gangs.”
Some analysts attribute this apparent shift to the Iranian regime’s realization that it is losing support in a changing Arab world.
Opinion polls indicating that Iran is losing popularity in the region made headlines over the summer and prompted debate about the extent to which the “Arab spring” was weakening Iran.
An Arab-American Institute (AAI) poll in late July reported a significant shift in Arabs’ views of Iran over the past five years, citing a favorability rating of 37 percent in Egypt (down from 89 percent in 2006), 23 percent in Jordan (down from 75 percent) and just six percent in Saudi Arabia (down from 89 percent).
But the poll also showed that the trend was underway well before this year’s political upheavals in the Arab world: By 2009 Iran’s favorability rating among Egyptians had already dropped from those 2006 highs to 41 percent; among Jordanians to 31 percent; and among Saudi respondents to 35 percent.
That development was also apparent in another poll, released by the Pew Research Center in mid-July. It showed that favorable views of Iran had indeed dropped over the past year – from 33 percent to 22 percent in Egypt and from 37 percent to 23 percent in Jordan – but in both cases the decline was already underway long before 2010 (down from 59 percent in Egypt and from 49 percent in Jordan in 2006).
According to the Pew poll, Iran does remain popular in some Islamic societies, enjoying a 71 percent favorability rating in Pakistan, 49 percent in the Palestinian Authority areas, and 39 percent in Lebanon (shooting up to 95 percent if only Shi’ite respondents are taken into account).
Polling also shows that Muslims’ views on Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are not as clear cut as sometimes portrayed.
Although Saudis are deeply opposed (in the AAI poll, only one percent of Saudi respondents agreed that “the Middle East would be more secure if Iran were a nuclear power”), respondents elsewhere in the Islamic world are less so inclined.
In the Pew poll, 78 percent of Lebanese Shi’ites, 61 percent of Pakistanis, 38 percent of Palestinians, roughly one in four Egyptians and Indonesians, and about one in five Jordanians and Turks said they were in favor of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
‘New forces on the rise’
How the changing political landscape in the region will affect Shi’ite Iran is a matter of debate.
“Slowly but surely Iran finds itself being encircled by what is now called the ‘Sunni Crescent,’” Cairo University political sciences professor Nevine Mossaad wrote in a recent article published by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi.
“Sunni Islamic groups have established themselves as substitutes to the leaders who were ousted by Arab protests,” she observed. “These powers present themselves as full-fledged partners of the new leaderships. It is acknowledged that the rise of some factions of such Islamic groups, particularly Salafis, upset Iran owing to doctrinal differences.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted last week that the “Arab spring” eventually would spread to Iran, telling interview Charlie Rose that it was “a matter of time before that kind of change and reform and revolution occurs in Iran as well.”
Early on, Iranian leaders characterized the uprisings not as a move towards greater democracy but an “Islamic awakening” that would undermine U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.
Developments in Syria have presented a challenge for Tehran, however.
Some Mideast experts say Iran is trying to balance its desire to keep its important ally in power in Damascus – not least of all because of Hezbollah, Iran’s Syrian-backed proxy in Lebanon – and its concerns about the cost in terms of regional support of siding with an increasingly unpopular regime.
“The uprising in Syria placed Iran in an impossible position,” Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, wrote in an analysis this week.
“Maintaining its ally in Damascus formed an essential strategic interest. Iran hoped, following the U.S. departure from Iraq, to achieve a contiguous line of pro-Iranian, Shia states stretching from Iran itself to the Mediterranean.
“But keeping this ambition alive in recent months required offering very visible support to a non-Sunni regime engaged in the energetic slaughter of its own, largely Sunni people,” Spyer said. “This has led to the drastic decline in the standing of the Iranians and their friends.”
Even if Iran’s influence does diminish in the future, Spyer argued that the region will not necessarily become safer, as some of the “new forces on the rise” represent variations of Sunni Islamist ideology.
This could lead to a more complex Middle East in the future, he said, “consisting of an Iran-led camp and perhaps a number of Sunni competitors, rather than the two-bloc contest of pro-U.S. and pro-Iranian elements which preceded 2011.”