The Arabs and Iran

Do Arab governments want to see a military attack on Iran?

Regardless of Arab public opinion, governments in the Arab world remain largely authoritarian, with a demonstrated capacity to go against their public sentiment on critical issues, such as war. To be sure, there are always consequences for ignoring public opinion—and these may be growing—but when push comes to shove, governments have been able to disregard their publics when the stakes are important enough. The question is therefore: how do Arab governments think about the Iran issue, including the prospects of an American or an Israeli attack on Iran?

The first thing to note is that there is no unified Arab government position. Although, with the exception of Syria, most are suspicious of Iran and worry about rising Iranian power and influence, the degree of concern varies, and the sources of concern vary even more. Even in the case of Syria, where Iran is seen for the foreseeable future as a strategic partner, the Syrian government, a secular Arab nationalist government, is not naturally comfortable with the Islamic regime in Tehran. This much is clear (and is the basis of the prevailing conventional wisdom in Washington): most Arab governments would like Iranian power trimmed, with some supporting a potential attack on its nuclear facilities by either Israel or the United States.

But Arab governments' calculations cover a broad spectrum and are based on assessments on several issues: the impact of an attack on their own security (and longevity) particularly in the short to intermediate term; the impact on the regional balance of power, which includes the impact on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict; the impact on domestic politics (and in some places this also means the Sunni-Shiite divide); the impact on broader Arab regional and global influence; and the impact on Iraq's future. The weight of each issue varies across the Arab world, partly as a function of proximity to Iran or to the Arab-Israeli arena, partly as a function of internal demographics, and partly as a function of size and aspirations.

One has to put Iraq aside for the moment, since its politics are still unsettled, and the United States will remain there for the foreseeable future. Iran's small neighbors all have concerns about growing Iranian power in the region and Iran's influence in Iraq itself, and about their ramifications for regional security and for their own domestic politics, especially in places like Bahrain, where the Sunni-Shiite divide could become a bigger issue. Saudi Arabia too has its own worries about Iran, the nature of its government, and its growing power. But no one is as concerned as the United Arab Emirates, which is not only a close neighbor but also claims sovereignty over three islands that Iran controls. Even among these countries with close proximity to Iran, however, there are differences on how to deal with the perceived Iranian threats, including potential nuclear weapons.

Their publics may see the United States as a bigger threat than Iran, but governments of Iran's small Arab neighbors see the United States as protecting them from Iran, particularly after the decline of Iraq. Even Qatar, which has maintained good relations with Iran, at the end of the day is an American ally; it hosts a large American base—not Iranian troops. The differences are all about available options and the prospects of their success. And this is central in calculations of the possible use of force by either Israel or the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program.

If the assessment is that there would be a limited war that does not expand to their countries and disrupt their comfortable lives, and that the war would end by destroying Iran's nuclear weapons potential, weakening Iran's influence, and better yet, lead to regime change in Iran—supporting war would be a no-brainer for most of them. If on the other hand, there is a high risk that the war would not be short, that Iran would still be able to develop a nuclear-weapons capability and also acquire an interest in disrupting their lives (particularly if American forces operate from within their borders), the calculations will be different. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, these states are all small states concentrated on the Gulf, and are particularly exposed to potentially destructive attacks. If, in addition, they have to be concerned that a protracted war between the United States and Iran may lead to American overextension and American public pressure to pull forces from the region, thus leaving them to deal with Iranian wrath on their own, their preference will be to avoid war. Gulf Arab states are not all of the same mind on assessing the consequences of war and, therefore, on supporting that option.

There is a big strategic picture that matters to Arab elites, especially those with a strong Arab identity and in states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia where there is an expectation of regional leadership and of an enhanced global role. There is no escaping the current sentiment that overall Arab influence has diminished and that all non-Arab states in the region—Iran, Israel, and Turkey—have grown in power—particularly since the Iraq war. While governments in the region are first and foremost driven by what's good for them, they also face a public, including elites, that places more emphasis on transnational identity, whether Muslim or Arab, than on state identity. This means nuclear power not only has strategic value but also symbolic weight. And Arab governments would have to deal with the sense that Arabs are falling further behind.