By Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Seven in 10 Americans would support international economic sanctions as a way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but there is considerable wariness about taking military action against Tehran, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
With international efforts to persuade the Islamist regime to give up sensitive nuclear technology at an impasse, about 42 percent of Americans said they would support bombing Iran's nuclear development sites, while 54 percent oppose it.
As the International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to take up the issue of Iran's nuclear program at an emergency session Thursday in Vienna, the Post-ABC News poll echoes others showing that the public views Iran with guarded concern.
A large majority of the public says Iran is a threat to the United States, albeit not an immediate one, according to a recent Gallup poll. And a Fox News survey suggests the public views Iran's official pronouncements on the nuclear research program with great skepticism: Eight in 10 voters believe the country plans to use uranium enrichment for military rather than for peaceful purposes.
"Even before 9/11, if you asked people what the major foreign policy principles were, one that always scored high was stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons," John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University, said of the tough public response.
Though decisions on Iran are bound to be influenced by the ongoing conflict in Iraq, at least one poll suggests that many Americans see the resumption of Iran's nuclear program as the more serious threat. Nearly half of the respondents to the Fox News poll (47 percent) said Iran is more of a threat today than Iraq was before the U.S. invasion. An additional 19 percent saw the two situations as equivalent dangers, whereas 25 percent said Iran was less of a threat.
The American public "has had this long hostility against Iran," said Mueller, referring in particular to the hostage crisis that marked the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
Surveys have found differing levels of support for a military response to Iran's actions, based at least in part on the way the current situation was described in the poll question. Last week's Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll asked if the public would support military action if "Iran continues to produce material that can be used to develop nuclear weapons." In that survey, 57 percent backed a military response.
The Bush administration has said military action is not currently an option, but congressional leaders such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have said the threat of a military strike must remain on the table.