While popular protests in Iraq and Lebanon have been clearly directed at corruption and worsening economic conditions, there is another factor that should not be ignored – widespread frustration with the role played by Iran and its allied militias in both countries. This Lebanese and Iraqi concern with Iran’s use of sectarian groups to pursue its regional ambitions is a new development.
In my 2013 book, Looking at Iran, I noted the rise and fall of Iran in Arab public opinion. What our polling at Zogby Research Services (ZRS) had found was that while in 2006 Iran had extremely high favorable ratings in every Arab country in which we surveyed (ranging from 65% to 85%), over the next six years, those positive numbers slid downward (too well under 40%) everywhere except in Iraq and Lebanon. In both countries, Iran’s favorable ratings remained quite high (in the 60% range).
Since then, the descending trajectory in overall Arab attitudes toward Iran has continued, but with an added development. In our 2019 survey of Arab public opinion, we find that Lebanese and Iraqis now also have concerns with Iran.
Let’s look at what’s behind these numbers. Back in 2006 and early 2008, Iran was riding high in the Arab world. The bloody US invasion and occupation of Iraq and Israel’s assault on Lebanon not only created widespread outrage across the Arab World but also played into Iran’s hands creating an opportunity for the “Islamic Republic” to promote itself as the leader of the “resistance to the West.” They mocked other Arab countries for not standing up to the US and Israel.
This bump in Arab World’s support for Iran began to erode later in 2008 when their Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, turned its weapons on domestic Lebanese opponents. Far from being the leader of the resistance, Iran appeared to be more interested in promoting sectarian strife to serve their own interests.
The “nail in the coffin” for Iran’s favorable ratings in the Arab World came a few years later when Iran forcefully sided with Bashar al Assad in Syria’s bloody civil war and recruited sectarian militias from across the region to fight in support of the Assad regime. Even with this, Lebanese and Iraqi attitudes toward Iran stayed positive, in part because the still-fresh wounds inflicted on both countries by the US (in Iraq) and Israel (in Lebanon) posed a greater threat than Iran’s meddling.
In the years that followed, the drop in Iran’s ratings continued across the Arab World as Iran’s fingerprints were increasingly seen in events in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. And when Iranian leaders actively boasted about their having a foothold in several Arab capitals, the Arab public began to see Iran more as a self-serving meddlesome troublemaker than a leader of the resistance. By 2018, still, with the exception of Iraq and Lebanon, the highest favorable rating in any of the other Arab countries polled was 20% in Jordan (down from 70% in 2006) and the lowest was Egypt at less than 5% (down from 2006’s almost 90%). In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran’s favorable rating was still 60%. A somewhat concerning finding in these polls was the clear sectarian split in attitudes toward Iran in countries with populations of both Sunni and Shi’a sects sizable enough to measure. This, of course, would account for the much higher ratings Iran received in Lebanon and Iraq, but a similar split was noticeable in some Gulf countries, as well.
When we conducted our polling in 2019 we noticed a dramatic change in attitudes toward Iran in Lebanon and Iraq. We asked respondents to identify and rank which areas of Iranian policy were of the greatest concern to them. Of the nine areas mentioned, almost six in ten Lebanese identified Iran’s involvement in their country as their greatest concern. Seven in ten Iraqis also stated that they were concerned with Iran’s involvement in their country. Most significant was the fact that almost one-half of Shi’a Iraqis and over a third of Lebanese Shi’a were among those who agreed that their greatest concern with Iran was its involvement in their countries.
So, it was not surprising that when mass demonstrations broke out in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran would be one of the targets of the protesters’ wrath. This doesn’t diminish the protesters’ concern with the dire economic situation since our polling in both countries makes clear respondents’ deep dissatisfaction with their current situation and even less optimism that it will change in the future. Nor does this new frustration with Iran, mean that Lebanese and Iraqis are now feeling closer to the US – since attitudes toward the US in both countries can best be described as “lukewarm.” What it does mean is that the days were Iran and its allied militias could operate with impunity are over. When these pro-Iranian militias were mobilized to violently attack protesters in Lebanon or to shoot and kill hundreds of young people in Iraq, Iran’s agenda became clear and its fate was sealed in both countries.