By Fatima Al-Samadi
- The writer works for Al Jazeera Center for Studies.
ISTANBUL (AA) - In recent years, I have attended so many forums and symposia about Iranian-Arab relations organized by Western or Arab research centers. The common denominator of all these meetings is that the Arabs repeatedly point out Iran has been interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries and pursuing an aggressive policy whereas Tehran denies this statement every time it is made, hiding behind its official rhetoric regarding what has been happening in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. There has recently formed a general opinion that the dangerous change and tension in the Iranian-Arab relations have been preventing the relations from advancing in a constructive way, even increasing the likelihood of war.
At the Al-Jazeera Research Center, we conducted a survey in 2015, examining what Arab intellectuals thought about the role of Iran in the region and the course of the bilateral relations. The target of the survey that we carried out between September-October 2015 with politicians, academics, intellectuals as well as young people and syndicate workers from 21 Arab countries was to determine how they desired the Iranian-Arab relations should develop.
The results of the survey revealed that the crisis the Iranian-Arab relations were mired in was actually a very deep one. The results, for one, revealed that the intellectuals of the Arab world viewed the current point of the relations as "very negative" and that they were pessimistic about the future of these relations too. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents thought that the Iranian-Arab political relations were "bad", and only nine percent gave a positive opinion about them whereas three percent either refused to give a specific opinion or did not answer the question at all. The results regarding the relations in social, cultural, and economic spheres and the field of security were similar. As for the survey conducted about the future of the relations, the overwhelming majority of the Arab intellectuals opined that they expected no betterment in the Iranian-Arab relations in the next five years.
Thirty-nine percent of the respondents considered the most important problem hampering the relations as Tehran's political role and struggle to establish its influence, 29 percent saw the biggest problem as Tehran's interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries, 25 percent thought the major obstacle was the sectarian issue while only seven percent regarded Western interventions as the biggest problem.
The survey received a lot of coverage both in the Arab and Iranian press. However, what was particularly notable was that the Iranian press tended to concentrate on certain parts of the survey and intentionally ignored some other parts of the results about, for instance, Iran's interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries and its overall attitude toward the Arab revolutions.
As someone researching Iran, I believe that it is possible to derive the following conclusions from the survey:
- The majority of those who took part in the survey dominantly hold negative views of Iran, and the main reason behind this is the negative policies Tehran has so far pursued toward its neighboring Arab countries. The attitude Iran took toward the Arab revolutions, and especially those that occurred in Syria and Yemen, brought about a very negative change in the opinions of the Arab populaces who, by being sympathetic to Iran, had previously exhibited an approach substantially different from that of their governments. Iran's backing of the Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, its giving a whole new identity to the Houthi movement in Yemen, redefining it as a structure dependent on itself, and its punishing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad because of the attitudes they took against Iran and its cutting its support to them changed the image of Iran for the worse in the minds of the most of the Arab peoples. Iran's Syrian policies and the negative attitude it assumed in the face of the Arab revolutions played a particular role in the formation of this negative image.
- Until recently, Iran was able to successfully manipulate the Palestinian issue in its favor by filling the void created by the Arab regimes because of their decision to enter into negotiations with Israel. We cannot deny the great support that the Islamic Republic of Iran gave to the Palestinian cause after its Islamic revolution, but despite the role that it wanted to play and its economic and ideological support, its Syrian policies have dealt a direct blow to this role that it has aspired to. Therefore, it is only understandable that a big majority of the Arab intellectuals should think that Iran has abused the Palestinian issue and that there is no iota of sincerity in its Palestinian discourse.
- However, the majority are still taking a rational approach and desire to see a rapprochement between Iran and the Arab world while clearly opposing any military intervention in Iran. The majority still think that the greatest danger for the Arabs is Israel. Nonetheless, Iran has now taken second place on the list of the countries that pose the greatest threat to Arab countries, even surpassing the United States, even though it was previously not perceived as such.
- Another issue that has surfaced as a result of the tensions in the Iranian-Arab relations can be possibly examined under the title of "Iranian model". Most of those who took part in the survey are of the opinion that there is no longer an Iranian model to be taken as a role model. And this means that all the propaganda and publicity attempts Iran has made for a long time have failed. It is obvious the opinion that this Iranian model has failed mostly came from the Islamic segments of Arab countries that include also a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members. In addition to this large segment, most of the Arab intellectuals also shared this view. This situation demonstrates that the Islamic segment, accused of blindly following the Iranian model, has undergone a change in its views of Iran and the revolution that it represents.
People had a logical expectation that the deals Iran reached with the West regarding its nuclear program would improve its relationship with the United States and that this would eventually improve its ties to its neighbors, first and foremost Saudi Arabia. However, the impasse between these two countries has defied this logical expectation. The dominant role in carrying the relations to this negative point was played by the fact that these two countries pursue different political strategies. This fact has caused and still does cause a quite complicated as well as dangerous situation at a regional level. What is basically a geopolitical struggle taking on a sectarian character probably constitutes the most dangerous part of the problem.
Going back to the survey results; we can see that although there was a group that supported the rapprochement between Iran and the United States, everybody, even this supportive group, significantly felt concerned about this rapprochement. Seventy percent of the respondents expressed fear and concern in regard to this rapprochement. Number one fear voiced by the respondents was the possibility that Iran might increase its influence in the region and become, yet again, the "policeman of the gulf", just like before the Islamic revolution.
In a nutshell, Iran's rhetoric about a "constructive cooperation" with the countries in the region and that it considers this policy as the axis of its foreign policy is perceived quite differently by the Arabs. The Arabs now believe that a way must be found to struggle against the strategic activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region.
Statements made by politicians about the Iranian-Arab relations, beyond merely expressing their positions logically and rationally, should be perceived as a reaction produced by "a map of perception" formed in a human being through a complete array of ethical, symbolic, and ideological values as well as symbols, memories, hate, tolerance, intention, desire, and fear.
The hostile approach taken by the Arabs against Iran has manifested itself on many occasions. One of them, as was divulged by the WikiLeaks documents, was the Arab desire that "the snake's head be cut off". Iran, on the other hand, casts a degrading look on the Arabs in the Gulf states on every possible occasion, thinking that "they are the servants of the West and the US."
This is a situation that may be considered to fall within the scope of the perception of "I and the other", yet their geographical locations, interests, and commonalities impact on the perception of Iran and the Arabs. It is possible to change these mutually negative perceptions either through peaceful dialogue or by resorting to violence. In this case, the neighbors have to decide which of these two methods would be more beneficial for the peoples in the region and the world.
- Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy.