The Iran nuclear deal provoked a mix of reactions among Arabs, ranging from a deepening of the suspicion already felt by religious Sunni Muslims to a sense of admiration shared by both secular and Shiites Arabs.
Social media was abuzz with fear, suspicion and hate of Iran—a traditionally expected response of Arabs who identify themselves in religious terms and see Iran, the largest Shiite country, as the main threat to their identity as Sunni Muslims.
Their response to the nuclear deal is also shaped by their deep fear of Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon—all have either a Shiite population or minorities belonging to offshoots of Shiite Islam.
Iraq’s Sunni Muslim politician Tariq al-Hashimi tweeted:
“The Iranian nuclear agreement is a deal that Iran was forced to accept, bowing to the will of the world’s arrogant powers; it traded dignity for money.”
Al-Jazeera’s Syrian presenter Faisal al-Kasim tweeted:
“Iran managed to dominate Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen while under international sanctions. I wonder how far it will go when sanctions are lifted.”
Religiously inclined Shiite Arabs with political interests look up to Iran as a model and its clergy as spiritual leaders of the world’s Shiite Muslims, mostly minorities marginalised in most Sunni majority countries.
The Kuwaiti Walid al-Tabtabani tweeted words of praise of Iran and its perceived achievements and “promotion of religiosity” and words of scorn of Arab leaders and their “lack of religiosity”.
“The statement below is correct about Iran whose ambassadors in all countries attend Friday prayers and events even as our ambassadors are getting drunk in bars.”
He shared a tweet that reads: “Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran hosted Russian nuclear energy scientists while Arabs hosted Russian women. For this reason, Iran sought nuclear [Nawawiya in Arabic] weapons while Arabs were driven by their sperms [Manawiya]”,—a play on the two rhyming words.
This idea was echoed by other Arab Twitter users who used the Arabic hashtag #SaudiaArabiaisaspermseekingcountry.
In the cartoon below, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani is seen reading a bedtime story to US President Barack Obama.
It is no surprise that many Shiite Arabs identify with Iran. But the ostensible irony is that some secular Arabs who are quintessentially opposed to Islamism and Saudi Arabia being its embodiment, are sympathetic to Iran, itself a religious state. Their stated reason is Iran’s rich history and culture as opposed to its Arab neighbours in the Gulf, seen as rich in oil but poor in culture.
Many secular Arabs are also resentful of the ascendency of conservative Gulf Arab countries as regional economic and political powerhouses coupled with the demise of “progressive” regional powers like Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
Under the Arabic hashtag #Irantriumphs, a pro-Iran Arab tweeted a cartoon that showed a Saudi man dwarfed by an Iranian Ayatollah standing on top of what is supposed to be a heritage of “science, history and technology.
“The strong west negotiates only with the strong [meaning Iran], leaving the rest [of the region] on the cusp of constructive chaos and jihad,” a Saudi man tweeted.
This a reference to the so-called “constructive chaos” theory, which many Arabs believe was conceived by the Neo-Conservatives under US President George Bush to redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with the geo-strategic interests and objectives of the US, its western allies and Israel. The theory, many Arabs believe, was put into practice first in Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 and was later used to generate the current conditions of violence and warfare throughout the region.
Iran is also winning the hearts and minds of many Arab leftists thanks to its staunch anti-Israeli position in contrast to Gulf countries and other Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, all seen as acquiescent to the west and Israel.
Egyptian leftist activist Ekram Yousef’s response to the Iranian nuclear deal summed up a sense of admiration for Iran felt by sections of the Arab left.
“Israeli newspapers carried the signs of mourning after the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement and declared today a national day of mourning….I pray to God that we, in this country, are able to do something that would cause Israeli newspapers to mourn.”
To other Arab leftists, Iran is seen as a successful Third World country that has been able to achieve independence from the west and muster its resources to build itself into a regional powerhouse.
Among these leftists is Egyptian economist Nader Fergany, the lead author of the first regional Arab Human Development Report in 2002.
In a post on Facebook, Fergany cited as evidence for Iran’s “strength and self-esteem” a behind-the-scenes incident during a difficult session of the lengthy nuclear negotiations between Iran and western powers. Iranian foreign minister Mohamed Jawad Zarif shrugged aside a western negotiator’s threat to leave the talks unless a certain sticking point was addressed.
“….the Iranian foreign minister told him: First, don’t make a threat; if you want to leave, do so immediately. Second, I advise you not to threaten an Iranian,” Fergany wrote.
“Note that he [Zarif] did not say ‘don’t threaten the foreign minister of Iran. His loyalty is to his nation and people, which comes above his post.”
Comments on Fergany’s post expressed considerable admiration for Iran’s “resolve” despite sanctions and for its “professional diplomats”.
Shaben Morshed wrote: “Despite sanctions and wars, the people [of Iran] achieved development; the west could not starve them.”
Ayman Emara wrote: “They have a highly professional, skillful and astute team led by Jawad Zarif. They are well-educated and aware of world politics and know how to make gains for their country.”
“They have their own dress code, even their shirts reflect their own style. It was really a Persian night in Vienna,” Emara added.