Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday told a Paris-based magazine that a military strike on Iran would be beneficial to the region. Netanyahu’s statement was published on the eve of a meeting with French President Francois Holland, during which the two planned to discuss the Iran issue among other topics. Netanyahu cited Iran’s lack of popularity in the Middle East:
“Five minutes after, contrary to what the skeptics say, I think a feeling of relief would spread across the region…Iran is not popular in the Arab world, far from it, and some governments in the region, as well as their citizens, have understood that a nuclear armed Iran would be dangerous for them, not just for Israel.”
Sound familiar? Netanyahu’s statement echoes a point that he made in 2002, when he advocated for a strike on Iraq on the grounds that, among other things, it would benefit the region:
“If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region…the test and the great opportunity and challenge is not merely to effect the ouster of the regime, but also transform that society and thereby begin too the process of democratizing the Arab world.”
It hardly bears repeating that Arabs in the Middle East did not react favorably to the Iraq war. The year the war began, the Los Angeles Times reported from Syria and found that negative views of America had hardened. One Syrian told the Times ”What they are doing is worse than what Saddam [Hussein] has done.” Brookings Institution polling from 2003 backed up the anecdotes. More than 60 percent of Arabs saw the Iraq war causing “less peace” in the region and more than 70 percent said it would result in “more terrorism.” Shelby Tahimi, a Middle East expert and the creator of the poll, found an “unprecedented tide of public opinion running against the United States” after the Iraq war.
In the end, the war did not have “positive reverberations” for Arabs in the region. An anti-war group reported this year that over a 100,000 civilians died in the war. The violence spread to other countries as well: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the early 2000s, organized a vicious bombing campaign in Jordan, killing 54 people at hotels across Amman. Sectarianism in Iraq grew exponentially, often times with Iran reportedly supporting Shiite militants, and thousands died in Iraq as a result. A report published earlier this year by a bipartisan group of former U.S. defense and diplomatic officials said a strike on Iran would cause similar regional chaos:
“A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences that would significantly increase all of these costs and lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.”
This time, Netanyahu is referencing Iran’s unpopularity, likely referring to well-known animosity between the leaders of several Gulf nations and Iran. In 2010, after Wikileaks exposed U.S. diplomatic cables, Arab leaders’ hostile views of Iran were undeniable. In one cable, a Saudi official explained the “King’s frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program.” The official added in what is now a well-known phrase that the King had said to “cut off the head of the snake.” Another cable quoted Bahrain’s King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa telling Gen. David Petraeus that Iran’s nuclear program “must be stopped.” Qatar, according to a different Wikileaks cable, reportedly said the U.S. could use a military base on its land.
But when it comes to the general Arab population, the numbers tell a different story. Polling shows that while a majority of Arabs see Iran as playing a negative role in the region, a majority also feel that Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program.