Iran has been portrayed as a regional threat for decades. Such portrayals have at times been fabricated, exaggerated or convenient. However, Tehran’s recent actions and statements leave no doubt about its regional ambitions.
This month, Ali Younisi, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, said Iran is now an empire, and Iraq “has become part of this empire”. Also in March, Iran’s top general, Mohammad Ali Jafari, praised “the ever-increasing export” of his country’s 1979 “Islamic revolution”, which “has entered a new chapter”.
In February, Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force – the foreign wing of the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps – said: “Today we see signs of the Islamic revolution being exported throughout the region, from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa.”
In September, Iranian MP Ali Reza Zakani, who is reportedly close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said his country now controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa – which “belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution”.
These are not nuanced statements that are open to interpretation and context. They show Tehran’s clear intent to project its power regionally, and its allies are serving – unwittingly or otherwise – as tools in this grand project. This can no longer be discounted as the ramblings of conspiracy theorists or the propaganda of its sworn enemies.
Tehran has troops actively engaged in two Arab countries – Iraq and Syria – and has proxy forces in two others – Lebanon and Yemen. Such direct Iranian involvement in Arab states is unprecedented, and ironic given Tehran’s denunciations of foreign meddling in countries’ internal affairs.
Furthermore, its involvement is in support of sectarian governments and militias that have committed countless atrocities. This reveals the hypocrisy of a regime that highlights its enemies’ human rights abuses.
No wonder, then, that opinion polls show that Iran’s expanded Middle East footprint has left it more isolated regionally.
“Most Arabs and Muslims now hold decidedly negative views of Iran and are solidly opposed to Iran’s regional ambitions,” wrote James Zogby, managing director of Zogby Research Services (ZRS), which has conducted annual polls of regional public opinion vis-a-vis Iran for over a decade.
The argument that Tehran's more aggressive regional role is necessary to counter Israeli and US hegemony is illogical given the opposition of most Arabs to all three. The solution to hegemony is not more hegemons, but none at all.
“In the eyes of many Arabs,” Iran has gone from “being perceived as a bastion of principled resistance,” to being “viewed as a meddlesome neighbor pursuing a dangerous and divisive agenda,” Zogby added.
So much for promises by Rouhani and his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to improve ties with the Arab world.
According to the ZRS polls, Iran’s popularity peaked in 2006, with approval ratings in most Arab and Muslim countries around 75 percent. Strikingly, in Saudi Arabia – an arch-rival of Tehran – approval ratings were even higher, at 85 percent. Six years later, Iran’s favourable ratings in these same countries had plummeted to less than 25 percent (15 percent among Saudis).
Another striking finding, from ZRS’s 2014 survey, was that 57 percent of Iraqis – most of whom, like Iranians, are Shia, and whose government is a staunch ally of Tehran – viewed Iran’s regional role negatively.
The ZRS polls make clear that Iran’s tarnished image is not due to inherent Arab animosity, but to its interference in Arab affairs. In that respect, Zogby described Tehran’s support for the Syrian regime as “the nail in the coffin”.
However, Arabs’ increasingly negative view of Iran has not benefitted the standing of Israel, the US, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Opinion polls carried out by the Pew Research Center from 2002 until last year show that most Arabs view the US unfavourably most of the time.
Furthermore, a poll in 12 Arab countries by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in 2012 – when Iran’s standing among Arabs was in the doldrums – revealed that 73 percent saw Israel and the US as the most threatening countries. Only 5 percent saw Iran as the most threatening. And according to opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of Arabs are hostile toward ISIL.
This does not exonerate Tehran – on the contrary. It shows that those who voice concern over its regional ambitions cannot be dismissed as sympathisers of Israel, the US or jihadists. Such accusations are disingenuous attempts to shut down debate, much like labelling critics of Israel anti-Semitic.
The argument that Tehran’s more aggressive regional role is necessary to counter Israeli and US hegemony is illogical given the opposition of most Arabs to all three. The solution to hegemony is not more hegemons, but none at all.
Arabs have very real, legitimate worries about Iran’s increased muscle-flexing. If Tehran cares for its regional standing – which is in its national interests – it should sincerely address and allay those concerns rather than deny, belittle or denounce them. Tehran should also realise that just as it would not tolerate foreign troops or support for armed groups on its own soil, neither should it expect Arabs to do so.
Arab-Iranian rapprochement is necessary and beneficial for both peoples, who share so much in common. However, due to Tehran’s regional policies – among other factors – we are headed in the opposite direction. The Middle East is littered with examples, past and present, of regional powers relying on force rather than winning over hearts and minds. Tehran is now an addition to that list.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.