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.
They also worry about Israel's regional hegemony and, whatever cost there is in terms of public face, Arabs may still view Iran's potential to acquire nuclear weapon as added pressure on Israel, making it more likely its government will need Arab support.
Ideally, they would like to see the Middle East turn into a nuclear-free zone, with no Israeli or Iranian bombs. But it is also clear that the potential Iranian nuclear weapons have helped them make a stronger case for such a zone, assisting Egypt to secure what was seen as a foreign policy achievement when it successfully lobbied last May, in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, for taking up the issue of turning the Middle East into a nuclear free zone in 2012, with American backing.
This perspective also gives a different view of a possible Israeli (sans America) attack on Iran. An Israeli success would be a mixed blessing: Iran would be weakened, but Israel would emerge even stronger. On the other hand, Israel would then be engaged in a real conflict with Iran bound to last for the long term, regardless of the government in power. Whereas, at the moment, the conflict between Israel and Iran remains primarily ideological; war would create a deeper divide. The negative turn in Turkish-Israeli relations, particularly since the Gaza war in 2008, has oddly left Israel dependent particularly on its relations with Egypt, for creating some regional balance. To be sure, Israel continues to rely primarily on the backing of the United States and on its own military capacities, but it has always been mindful of maintaining regional friends. A war with Iran would jeopardize that leverage in the long term.
Taken to an extreme, a protracted Israeli-Iranian conflict (that did not draw in other Arab states) would be seen by many in the region in the same way that the protracted Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s was seen by Israel: two powerful and feared countries weakening each other—in this case, with strategic benefits for the Arab states.
The trouble is that it is hard to envision a war scenario that does not impact Arabs in the region, directly or indirectly—just as it is hard to envision an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities that does not draw in the United States. For states like Egypt, Jordan, or Morocco, the Iranian threat is not a direct military threat. What they fear most is Iranian influence, in the region, broadly, and in their own internal politics. In particular, they worry about the success and popularity of the militant narrative that Iran sells, and its support for groups they oppose, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, far more than they worry about the number of Iranian troops, or the number of Iranian weapons. And it is for this reason that these states see a connection between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the degree of Iranian influence: diplomatic failure sells militancy, and conflicts like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and the Gaza war in 2008 make Hezbollah and Hamas more popular in Arab countries. That is why they emphasize Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy as a way of curbing Iranian influence.
In theory, Iranian influence, and the militant narrative would suffer if either Israel or the U.S. were to carry out an attack on Iran that succeeds with minimal spill-over. But it is hard to see how any attack, whether undertaken initially by the United State or by Israel, does not ultimately involve the United States, and therefore Arab states, by virtue of the presence of American troops on Arab soil, and the logistical support that the United States will require in any military effort.