Wanted: an Accurate Assessment of Arab-Iran Animosity

At the end of June, Iranian news service FARS reported that Israeli Air Force helicopters flew military equipment to an airport in Saudi Arabia ostensibly in preparation for an attack on Iran. Meanwhile, according to the London Times, Saudi Arabia agreed to allow Israel to use its airspace for an attack on Iran. The Saudis denied both reports.

The reports were also scoffed at by some of those interviewed for an article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Shafeeq Ghabra, an expert on Gulf geopolitics . . . argued that an attack on Iran was not in Saudi interests.” Meanwhile, Middle-Eastern security authority Dr. Mustafa Alani said, “The Saudis will never be part of a military action against Iran, never mind an Israeli attack on Iran. . . . Furthermore, the Saudis are not needed [and besides the] Americans can attack Iran without embarrassing all these Gulf states, not just Saudi Arabia.”

Whether the reports are true or not, they demonstrate how prevalent the view is that Saudi Arabia thinks of Iran as a regional rival that needs to be reined in with, if necessary, military action. Sure, the Arab states, Israel and Iran have triangulated for decades. Nobody detailed that better than Trita Parsi in his 2007 book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. But is Arab-Iran animosity really that pronounced? At Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s essential blog Race for Iran, they explore that question.

Shibley Telhami [of the centrist think tank the Brookings Institution recently] released the results of his 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which he conducts annually with Zogby International. [The results] can hardly be comforting for those who want to believe that the Islamic Republic is becoming estranged from its regional neighbors and that Arabs are ready to stand side-by-side with Israelis to support military action . . . against Iranian nuclear targets.

For example, while . . .

. . . 77 percent [of those in all the Arab states polled believe] that Iran has the right to pursue its nuclear program . . . only 20 percent agree that Iran should be pressured by the international community to stop the program. In Egypt and Morocco, huge majorities . . . believe that Iran has the right to pursue such a program. In Saudi Arabia, the population that believes Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons is evenly divided, 50 percent to 50 percent, on this question.

Returning to Arabs in general . . .

These data set the stage for one of the most remarkable findings in [the poll]: 57 percent of the respondents believe that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a positive outcome for the region; 20 percent believe this would not matter one way or the other, while only 21 percent believes this would be a negative outcome for the region. This is truly remarkable. [Bear in mind that] with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue and perceptions of the Islamic Republic as a “threat”, the trend in Arab public opinion over time is running in the opposite direction from that desired by most major Arab governments.

Of course, since the Arab states and people aren’t on the same page, the possibility still exists that Saudi Arabia is aiding Israel in preparations for an attack on Iran. On a related issue, then, is Iran’s apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons prompting Saudi Arabia to follow suit? To learn the answer, let’s explore another Race for Iran article, this one written by Gulf petrochemical expert Jean-Francois Seznec.

If Iran develops nuclear weapons, it may gain a strong and unacceptable bargaining tool to use against its Arab neighbors. If Iran succeeds in developing only nuclear power generation capacity, it still would have a technological advantage, which until now has been maintained by the Gulf Arab countries in most industrial ventures. The consensus is that most Gulf countries will now pursue very active nuclear policies, all couched in terms of power generation.

While . . .

It seems pretty clear that the Saudis do not have the wherewithal or interest to develop nuclear weapons [they] do not want to be left behind Iran or even the UAE in terms of technological advance, ability to maintain industrial primacy, and . . . nuclear bragging rights.

Finally, he writes, “the Saudis are happy to promote any policy that would delay the Iranian program” and many “in Washington claim that [Gulf] leaders say ‘in private’ that they would support a U.S. attack on Iran.” But he is “firmly convinced that this is just not the case. This understanding of ‘in private’ statements reflects only a selective and self-serving hearing of Gulf leaders’ words.”

Thus if Arab states aiding and abetting Israel in an attack on Iran seems counterintuitive to you, in this instance you might be safe betting on your instincts.