This map of global public opinion toward Iran is bad news for Tehran

June 11, 2013

Click to enlarge. (Data source: Pew)

As Iran prepares for its presidential election, Pew put the entire Islamic Republic through a different sort of vote: public opinion. The polling firm surveyed people in 39 countries for their views on Iran. What they found is that the country is not just politically isolated: It is deeply unpopular almost universally.

Only two countries reported more than 50 percent favorable views of Iran: Pakistan, with 69 percent supporting the country that has made such a show of resisting the United States, and Indonesia, where a slimmer 55 percent said they see Iran favorably. The results are mapped out above, with the red countries less favorable of Iran and the blue countries, where Iran has more support.

The overall results are not shocking; a January poll found much the same. But there are a few surprises. None of them is particularly good news for an Iranian regime appears to be more and more loathed and isolated by a world that, despite Iran's protestations of independence, the country badly needs to continue buying its energy resources.

Iran is most unpopular in Israel and by almost equal numbers in Western Europe. Though European-Israeli diplomatic relationships have been strained, this data suggest little difference between Israel and Europe when it comes to mistrusting Iran, even if they do not necessarily agree on the proper response. It's interesting to note that the United States and United Kingdom, which have done more than any other countries save possibly Israel to contain Iran, show slightly more sympathy toward that nation than does the rest of Europe. This could reflect some American and British public skepticism about launching direct strikes on Iran, an option more commonly discussed in those countries than in, for example, Germany or Italy.

Perhaps most consequential for Tehran are  the negative views of Iran held in East Asia, particularly Japan and China, two crucial buyers of Iranian energy resources. While Asian economies have not joined the severe European and American sanctions against the Iranian energy industry and do not appear poised to do so soon, they do seem to be increasingly reluctant about importing from Iran.

Iran is disliked even in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it supports local militant groups and tries to present itself as a champion in the cause against Israel. Among Palestinians, 37 percent hold a favorable view of Iran, a remarkably low number given the Palestinian antipathy toward the United States and Israel. It's more complicated in Lebanon – isn't it always? – with 89 percent of Lebanese Shia holding a favorable view of also-Shia Iran, joined by 38 percent of Lebanese Christians and only 6 percent of Sunni. Iran is also seen unfavorably by such majority-Sunni countries as Egypt, Turkey and even far-away sub-Saharan states.

There's more bad news in this poll for Tehran: Pakistan, the one surveyed country where Iran is popular, appears to be slackening in its support for the fellow Islamic state and bastion of anti-Western resistance. The January Pew poll found that 79 percent of Pakistanis support Iran, but the new number is 69 percent. That's still pretty high in both absolute and relative terms, but it's hard to miss the significant quick drop in pro-Iranian attitude.

Candidates in the recent Iranian presidential debates have shown surprising candor in criticizing everything from the nuclear negotiations with the West to crackdowns on student movements. But, unless I missed it, the candidates did not spend much time discussing how they can improve their country's troubled reputation, beyond a few comments about how boosting tourism could help persuade visitors to promote their country's image abroad. It's not clear that even the reformist candidates suggested that the nuclear program and police crackdowns might also present opportunities for improving their country's image.

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