The U.S. in Muslim and Arab Perspectives

Martin Kramer’s address to a conference on “The U.S. and Israel under Changing Political Circumstances,” Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv, December 18, 2008. (In the video clip that follows the text, Martin Kramer’s remarks follow an introduction by former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, at minute 1:45. There is also a published version, Memorandum No. 101, INSS, November 2009. Download here.)

I want to deal with a subordinate facet of the Iranian threat—Iran’s purported ability to set the Middle East ablaze in the event of a confrontation with the United States.

It is often said that Iran has more strategic depth than one might imagine from an inventory of its own military capabilities. This depth, it is argued, derives from the support of Arabs and Muslims worldwide for Iran’s anti-American posture. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, we read the following: “The Arab people… do not share the anti-Iranian sentiment of their governments…. Tehran enjoys significant soft power in the Middle East today.” Anyone who would dare threaten, pressure, or strike Iran must take into account the reactions this might unleash beyond Iran.

Just to give you a taste of the argument, I’ve harvested these quotes from a paper by a think tanker in Washington on what might happen across the region if Iran were attacked.

The Iranians would feel unrestrained about resorting to terrorism—their best bet against America’s military might.… Consider a scenario where Al Qaeda and an unleashed Hezbollah overcome Sunni-Shi’ite divisions to form a tactical alliance against a common enemy: the United States.… We could ignite destabilizing violence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia.… Our European allies host large immigrant Muslim populations… [and] a U.S. attack on Iran could unleash a wave of terrorist reprisal throughout Europe.… There is also the risk of radicalizing America’s Muslim population.

In this scenario, the verbs are dramatic—”unleashed” is used twice—and a move against Iran is depicted as the trigger for an apocalypse of violence. Now everyone here will find some part of this scenario more believable than others, but to the extent it resonates as a whole, it’s thanks to two assumptions that have become widespread over the past several years.

The first assumption is that U.S. policy has so angered Arabs and Muslims, that they’re bound to rally behind Iran in any U.S.-Iran confrontation. Red-hot hatred of America trumps everything, erasing the differences between Persian and Arab, Sunni and Shiite. Iran, as the last anti-American force left standing, would benefit from that floating rage that once fixed itself to Al Qaeda and Saddam.

This assumption owes a lot to the annual Zogby polls taken in six Arab countries, and presented to Americans as the final word on attitudes in the Arab street. These polls are most famous for showing a dramatic erosion of America’s standing in Arab opinion, due, so the polls suggest, to Bush administration support for Israel.

But lately the Zogby poll has also tried to measure Arab opinion toward Iran, and the findings, if they are to be believed, suggest that Iran is translating Arab resentment against the U.S. into support for its nuclear agenda. In one particularly pertinent question, Arab respondents were asked what the outcome for the Middle East would be if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. In the March poll, 44 percent said a nuclear-armed Iran would be positive, 29 percent said it would be negative, and 12 percent said it wouldn’t matter.

Now if these polls are accurate, they would lend support to the notion that Arab opinion has aligned with Iran’s nuclear ambitions—which it believes is directed against Israel and the U.S. But are these polls accurate? For example, the largest percentages in specific countries who think the outcome of a nuclear-armed Iran would be positive, are Saudis (at 73 percent) and Emiratis (at 51 percent). That three quarters of Saudis and half of all Emiratis would prefer to live next door to a nuclear-armed Iran beggars belief. And indeed, another poll of Arab opinion taken just a month ago for the Doha Debates came up with significantly different results. In that poll, Arab respondents were asked whether the Middle East could “tolerate” a nuclear Iran. The region-wide answer was no, by 55 to 45 percent; and the margin in the GCC states was 58 to 42 against tolerating a nuclear Iran.

Now I don’t want to get deeply or at all into the problems of polling methods in these contexts. I do want to suggest that the statement, “Tehran enjoys significant soft power in the Middle East today,” is potentially misleading. That “soft power,” outside the Shiite circle, is itself soft, not something that Iran can rely upon in a crunch; and there looks to be a split in Arab public opinion about Iran’s nuclear program. And while the different polls do show across the board a clear Arab preference for a negotiated settlement, there’s no evidence as to what people think should be done if negotiations fail. Later in this session, we’ll hear about a range of options; we have in fact no idea how they might play in the various Arab countries.

The second questionable assumption is that in matters of national security, what people think in the street trumps what rulers think in the palaces. “The Arab people,” we read in Foreign Affairs, “do not share the anti-Iranian sentiment of their governments.” I leave aside just who “the Arab people” are—it’s an awfully broad category. But even if it’s allowed that things look differently from outside the palace than from inside it, why assume that the rulers lack the leverage to shift or neutralize public opinion, if they try?

In the palaces, of course, there’s unease about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It manifests itself in different ways. The Gulf states are triangulating between Washington and Tehran, because they’re small and that’s what they always do, and because the U.S. has seemed to them irresolute. But it’s striking how much more outspoken the Saudi and Egyptian media have become, both in criticizing the ambitions of Iran, and berating other Arabs who seem indifferent to those ambitions. Over the summer, one Saudi columnist wrote: “The absolute priority must be our strategic security in the Gulf, which is threatened by Iran—even if this comes at the expense of the Palestinian cause.… We need to push the world powers… towards military confrontation to neutralize the Iranian enemy, whatever the cost, before the nuclear bomb makes it too late.”

Saudi columnists have described the split in the Arab world as dividing “the Arabs of the north” from “the Arabs of the south.” The former are allegedly blinded by their preoccupation with Palestine, and they are susceptible to the siren calls of Iran. As another Saudi columnist put it: “Some of the Arabs of the North are in a strategic alliance with the Persian enemy. It goes without saying that, according to all the indicators, the primary and most dangerous enemy of the Gulf states is Iran.” This presentation of the issue probably reflects views held by royal bankrollers of Saudi newspapers and journalists. In many of these pieces, the United States does stand accused—not of support for Israel, which is nothing new, but of strengthening Iran, largely through its folly in Iraq.

What does this mean? Well, it means that it’s still possible for President Obama, when he delivers that speech in an Islamic capital, to win some Arab endorsement of the principle that all options should be on the table. It may be possible to build some Arab support for what Obama has already stated: that, in his words, “it is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon; it would be a game changer.” The United States will always be regarded with a mix of fear, suspicion and resentment in this part of the world. But this doesn’t mean it can’t form alliances of convenience against those who excite still more fear, suspicion and resentment than it does. Over the years in the Middle East, the United States thwarted first the Soviet Union and then Al Qaeda in Iraq through alliances of convenience. There’s the basis for that vis-a-vis Iran as well.

Of course, we mustn’t downplay Iran’s genuine cards beyond its borders: its relationship with Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Iran, too, has allies, and allies of convenience. But even in worst-case scenarios involving them, we know what the outer limits will be, because we know their capabilities. For some of those capabilities, there are answers; others should give us pause.

But if we’re to be intellectually consistent, we have to give equal consideration to the worst-case scenario for the region, if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons. That scenario’s been drawn vividly for us in the brand new report by the National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025. Allow me to quote it:

[R]einforce[d] perceptions of [Iran’s] intent and ability to develop nuclear weapons potentially would prompt additional states in the region to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.… It is not certain that the type of stable deterrent relationship that existed for most of the Cold War would emerge naturally in the Middle East with multiple nuclear-weapons capable states.… The possession of nuclear weapons may be perceived as making it “safe” to engage in low intensity conflicts and terrorism.… If the number of nuclear-capable states increases, so will the number of countries potentially willing to provide nuclear assistance to other countries or to terrorists. The potential for theft or diversion of nuclear weapons, materials, and technology—and the potential for unauthorized nuclear use—also would rise.

Well, that’s a pretty disturbing worst-case scenario—in the battle of worst-case scenarios, it’s very hard to beat. (The National Intelligence Council goes on to describe it as “more dangerous than the Cold War,” which is saying rather a lot.) President-elect Obama was right to call this a game-changer for the entire region. I think we would all prefer to play the game we know for lower stakes, than the game we don’t know for much higher ones.

Martin Kramer’s remarks in the video clip below follow an introduction by former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, at minute 1:45.