Poll Takes the Pulse of the Middle East Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. With the help of Zogby International, he recently conducted a poll in six Middle East countries to gauge attitudes toward the U.S., Iran, Israel and the war in Iraq.
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Poll Takes the Pulse of the Middle East

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Poll Takes the Pulse of the Middle East

Poll Takes the Pulse of the Middle East

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said today that Iran has no reverse gear in its attempt to develop nuclear power. His rejection of a U.N. mandate to freeze uranium enrichment is seen as defiance in the West. But the attitude in the Middle East is different and more nuanced.

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development and has just published a poll conducted with Zogby International. People in six countries - Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - were asked about their perceptions of the United States, Israel, Iran, and the Iraq War.

Professor Telhami joins us now.

Good morning. Good to talk to you.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, University Maryland): Good morning to you.

HANSEN: Let's start with Iran. Sixty-one percent of the respondents thought Iran has the right to its nuclear program. Fifty-one percent yet believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. What do you make of those results? Do they surprise you?

Prof. TELHAMI: They didn't in a way, because we had a similar finding last year, but this year was stronger. That is, even a bigger majority didn't want the international community to pressure them to stop it. And a majority - slight majority, 51 percent - actually believed they are developing nuclear weapons.

It's an in interesting context here because Arab public is looking at the world through the prism of anger with the U.S., through the prism of the Israeli/Palestinian issue, and through the prism of Iraq. And those scores, they don't see Iran as the key threat to them. So when you ask them, you know, name the two countries that are most threatening to you, the vast majority - over 70 percent - name both the United States and Israel. And only about 11 percent name Iran. That varies slightly from country to country. More people in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are worried about Iran. But still, the trend is the same across the board.

HANSEN: There is a wide split though, to break it down a little bit, between Lebanon, for example. I mean they're very divided, 51 percent saying Iran has the right to develop nuclear power, 43 percent saying it should be pressure to stop. And on the other hand of the spectrum is Morocco; 77 percent said Iran has the right to nuclear power. Nine percent are opposed.

How do you explain that difference, that large difference?

Prof. TELHAMI: It's fascinating because in Lebanon, particularly, I broke it down into the sectarian elements. And you can see that the vast majority of the Shia - the overwhelming, almost monolithic - clearly support the Iranian effort, while the majority of the Sunnis and the Christians and the Druze oppose the Iranian nuclear effort. And so when you look at that, you could see it in the context in what's developing in Lebanon. Lebanese views on these issues, particularly toward Iran, are highly sectarian. Because of course the alliance between Iran and Hezbollah, if you support Hezbollah you're in a way sympathetic with Iran. If you oppose it, you're not sympathetic with Iran.

That's interesting because in the rest of the Arab world, actually much of the Arab world, the public's views on these issues and on Shia/Sunni issues, such as the power of Hezbollah, what's happening in Lebanon, they sympathize with the Shia in Lebanon more on those issues. Not that they're sympathetic with the Shia as such, but they're seeing these issues about Hezbollah power vis-à-vis Israel, the rise of Iran, through the prism of anger with Israel and the United States. And in that sense they actually coincide more with the views of the Shia in Lebanon than with the views of Sunnis in Lebanon.

HANSEN: An interesting question was asked, sort on the flip side. The question was asked, what would improve their views of the United States? And in your poll it says 62 percent said brokering a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Thirty-three percent said withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. So that boils down to, what, twice as many see the Palestinian conflict as the number one issue rather than the war in Iraq?

Prof. TELHAMI: Yeah. In fact, this is the question that I asked for the very first time. And I put it - I gave them options. It wasn't just an open question. I said, which of the following steps would improve your views of the U.S. most: brokering an Arab/Israeli peace based on the '67 borders, pulling out of Iraq, pulling out of the Arabian Peninsula, giving the Arab world more economic aid, spreading democracy in the Middle East, withholding aid from Israel, all of these things.

And remarkably, and I must tell you that I was somewhat surprised that the overwhelming answer is brokering Arab/Israeli peace based on the '67 border.

HANSEN: Yesterday, King Abdullah of Jordan said that the new Palestinian unity government needs to abide by the Quartet's preconditions, the recognition of Israel; as you've said, renunciation of violence, abiding with some of the past agreements.

Do you see Hamas and Fatah accepting those conditions anytime soon?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, it's been very difficult. I have talked to the mediators. I was in the region when the mediations were underway. I've talked to the Palestinian mediators between Fatah and Hamas, and clearly the issues were the same. And frankly, this issue in terms of respect versus commitment to the agreements that were signed was still the dividing issue. They had narrowed everything else. And when they went to Mecca and Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the same issue was still on the table. And they still came out without changing that from respect to commitment.

So I assume it's extremely difficult to imagine. I think King Abdullah of Jordan is obviously reflecting a sentiment that is very much close to the Western views. And he's clearly a key ally of the United States, trying to get that through. But he is running here against, in some ways, also the reputation of the king of Saudi Arabia. I mean, this is, you know, in some ways the Saudis put their credibility on the line because they've brokered this agreement. Can they now say, well, this is not enough? And clearly they have more clout in the Arab world today than Jordan, as such. And that's going to be a problem, I think, in kind of bridging that gap. And one wonders if there's a lot of coordination on this issue.

HANSEN: Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

Thanks for your time.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

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