President Obama’s Iran policy is widely popular, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but few give him good ratings on dealing with Iran amid equally wide concern that the nation intends to develop nuclear weapons.

The issue has election year implications on both foreign and domestic policy fronts, with more than eight in 10 Americans believing that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Back at home, rising gas prices are proving a drag on Obama’s approval rating on the economy, and providing a potent political weapon for potential Republican challengers.

“We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” Obama argued last week after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Americans by a more than 2 to 1 margin favor a “wait and see” approach on Iran over immediate military action, according to the new poll. Fully 64 percent say it’s more important to see if economic sanctions work, even if it allows more time for Iran’s nuclear program to progress – 26 percent support pre-emptive action to halt Iran’s progress. Majorities or pluralities across party lines prefer sanctions over immediate action, though Republicans are less supportive than Democrats or independents.

Sanctions may be a core tenet of his administration’s approach, but Obama is not reaping much reward being cautious. More than half of Americans, 52 percent, disapprove of Obama’s handling of the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, while 36 percent approve. The negative assessment could be tied to the political realities of the moment: Most Americans think Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon, and the Obama administration and U.S. allies have yet to ensure that Iran will live by their promise to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.

Policy appraisals

Many fewer, 41 percent, support bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites, and 53 percent of the public opposes such a move. Partisan divides are sharper on this issue: Majorities of Democrats and independents oppose bombing Iran, while most Republicans favor this option. A similar 42 percent support Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites, while 51 percent are opposed.

Americans’ hesitance to taking direct military action – or for Israel to do the same - may be driven by a fear of igniting a larger conflict in the region. More than three quarters of Americans say a bombing attack by Israel would have a major risk of starting a larger war in the Middle East, and this group opposes bombing by nearly 2 to 1. Among those who are doubtful that an Iran confrontation would spread throughout the region, a large majority support bombing Iran.

Different surveys have implied mixed conclusions about what the public wants on Iran, as we explored in February. Indeed, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds a 51 percent majority favoring military action against Iran, seeming to contradict the Post-ABC poll as well as a CBS/NYT poll last month where only 15 percent thought Iran requires “military action now.”

Taken together, Americans choose diplomacy over force when given the option, but are clearly open to military conflict if there is no other solution to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.

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