May 10, 2009

Don't exaggerate Arab fears of Obama's outreach to Iran

Thu, 05/07/2009 - 10:08am


As Secretary Gates and other American officials travel from Egypt to the Gulf to reassure Arab leaders about American intentions towards Iran -- with considerable success, judging by the satisfied headlines this morning ---  it's worth stepping back to ask why their fears are surfacing now, in such force?

Partly, it is because American intentions are genuinely unclear. While the President seems sincerely and deeply committed to pushing forward with diplomatic engagement, mixed messages from other quarters in the administration and the American public make it difficult for everyone -- not just Arab leaders -- to divine where the engagement is heading.

But setting that aside for the moment, it's also because of the intra-Arab politics of the question.  It's important to recognize that Arabs are not unified on this question.  Iran is one of the hottest of political footballs in current Arab politics. There are not only sharp gaps between leaders and publics, within Arab elites, and between Arab leaders.  I've been following the Arab public debate about Iran very closely for years now, and there has always been robust disagreement about the value of dialogue and confrontation. Those internal tensions -- and the failure, rather than the success, of the "moderate" Arab governments to persuade public opinion of their anti-Iranian views -- may matter as much as the actual question of Iran itself.