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Iran Benefits from Arab Disillusionment with Obama

Inter Press Service

U.S. President Barack Obama has suffered a sharp drop in popularity in the Arab world over the past year, and Iran may be reaping the benefits, according to a major new survey of public opinion in five Arab countries released here Thursday.

Only 20 percent of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) now view the U.S. president positively, compared to 45 percent who did so in the spring of 2009, according to the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll conducted by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution and the Zogby International polling firm.

Moreover, negative views of Obama have skyrocketed – from 23 percent to 62 percent – since the last poll was conducted in April-May 2009. The new findings were based on interviews with nearly 4,000 adults in the six countries between Jun. 29 and Jul. 20 this year.

When respondents were asked to name the world leader they admired most, Obama's standing was less than one percent. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was cited most often (20 percent), followed by last year's top pick, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (13 percent), and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (12 percent).

Erdogan's rapid rise to the top – he was cited by only four percent last year and never mentioned in the 2008 survey – was due to his outspoken denunciation of the 2008-9 Gaza war waged by Israel and the Turkish role in the aid flotilla to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli commandos at the end of May, noted Telhami.

Much of the disillusionment with Obama appears related to his failure to make progress in achieving a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, according to Telhami, who has conducted eight previous surveys of Arab opinion since 2000.

Asked what policies pursued by the Obama administration they were most disappointed with, 61 percent of respondents in the new poll identified the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was more than twice the percentage of the next-most- cited example, Washington's Iraq policy (27 percent).

"This is the prism through which Arabs view the Untied States," Telhami said, referring to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Iran appears to have benefited, at least indirectly, from Arab disillusionment with Obama, the poll results suggested.

While a majority of respondents (55 percent) said they believe Tehran's nuclear programme is aimed at developing weapons – a charge denied by Iran – nearly four out of five respondents (77 percent) said the country has the right to pursue the programme – a whopping increase of 24 percent since last year.

Support for the programme was strongest by far in Egypt and Morocco and weakest in the UAE, where a strong majority said Iran should be pressured to halt it.

Conversely, only 20 percent of respondents said they favoured applying international pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear programme. That was down from the 40 percent who took that position one year ago.

"Overall, there is very little support here for the notion that Arabs are secretly yearning for the U.S. to attack Iran," wrote Marc Lynch, a Mideast expert at George Washington University, whose blog on foreignpolicy.com has a wide readership among elite sectors here. "Really little."

Moreover, a solid majority (57 percent) of respondents agreed that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would lead to a "more positive" outcome in the Middle East region. That was nearly twice the percentage of one year ago (29 percent). By contrast, only 21 percent said that it would lead to a "more negative outcome", compared to a plurality of 46 percent who took that position in 2009.

These results, Telhami said, are "highly correlated to how (respondents) feel about U.S. policy. It's mostly an expression of anger and pessimism about U.S. policy."

Speaking before a standing-room-only audience at Brookings, Telhami stressed that the Arab world, unlike some other key regions, was never "in love with Obama", but that his election had raised their hopes, particularly after the eight-year reign of President George W. Bush who was consistently rated with former Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as the global leader most disliked by Arabs in Telhami's surveys.

Hopes for Obama rose even further after his Jun. 4, 2009 speech in Cairo where he pledged to "seek a new beginning" in relations between the United States and the Islamic world and expressed particular sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

But those hopes appear to have largely collapsed over the past year, according to the survey's findings. While he remains a somewhat attractive figure to many Arabs – 48 percent said they had a favourable personal view of him – an overwhelming majority (89 percent) said that he either would not or could not change basic U.S. policies in the region.

In one of the most remarkable findings, only 12 percent of respondents said they had a favourable view of the United States. That was three percentage points less than in the 2008 survey when Bush was still president. At the same time, however, the survey found a significant drop in those with "very unfavourable" views of the United States – from 64 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in the latest poll.

Asked what two steps Washington could take that would most improve their views of the U.S., respondents cited achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, withdrawing from Iraq, stopping aid to Israel, and withdrawing from the Arabian Peninsula in that order. Democracy promotion and economic aid received much less support.

Asked which two factors they believed were most important in driving U.S. policy in the Middle East, respondents most commonly cited protecting Israel, controlling oil, weakening the Muslim world, and preserving regional and global dominance in that order. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting stability, fighting terrorism, and spreading human rights and democracy received many fewer mentions.

Asked what two countries posed the greatest threats to them personally, respondents cited Israel (88 percent) and the U.S. (77 percent) – exactly the same results as in the 2009 survey. When Bush was still president, 95 percent of respondents cited Israel; 88 percent, the U.S. By contrast, Iran was cited by 10 percent of respondents, down from 13 percent last year.

On Israel, the new survey found a significant increase in the belief that the Jewish state exercises a more powerful influence on the U.S. than the other way around.

Asked what motivates Israeli policies and U.S. support for them, a plurality of 47 percent said they believe "Israel decides on its own interests and influences the U.S.," compared to 24 percent who took that position two years ago. By contrast, 20 percent said they believed "Israel is a tool of American foreign policy," while 33 percent agreed that the "U.S. and Israel have mutual interests."

Pessimism about prospects for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in the medium term has also increased in the last two years. While 40 percent believe such a settlement is "inevitable", only four percent said they thought it will happen in the next five years – down from 13 percent in 2008. A majority of 54 percent believe such an accord will never happen.

As to their own view about such a peace, a record 86 percent of respondents said they were prepared for peace if Israel was willing to return all the territories it captured in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. But 56 percent said they believed "Israel will never give up these territories easily."

Twelve percent said that Arabs should continue to fight even if Israel agrees to such a compromise. Last year, 25 percent of respondents took that position.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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