Iran’s Global Ambitions – Part III

The UN Security Council has imposed a series of sanctions on Iran for failing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran insists it complies with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the third and final article of this YaleGlobal series on Iran’s ambitions, Bruce Stokes reports on a survey in 22 nations by the German Marshall Fund, including questions on Iran. Majorities throughout Europe and the US, Japan, China, India – as well as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – hold unfavorable views of the country’s policies. The survey reveals emerging consensus opposed to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but also divisions among and within nations on how to respond to the defiance, including doubts over US handling of the issue. Support for a military strike emerges only after other options are exhausted, and many citizens express a preference for avoiding military conflict. – YaleGlobal

Iran’s Global Ambitions – Part III

Global opinion disapproves of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but differs on how to stop it
Bruce Stokes
Friday, September 17, 2010

Global disapproval: From New York (top) to Berlin, Iran's nuclear ambition is opposed by public opinion

WASHINGTON: In a speech September 8 to the US Council on Foreign Relations, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proudly asserted that “through classic shoe-leather diplomacy, we have built a broad consensus that will hold Iran accountable to its obligations if it continues its defiance” of the international community and builds a nuclear arsenal.

Clinton is right that most governments, particularly in the West, have come together in opposition to the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. But public views and official views often differ. And the devil is always in the details. “Holding Iran accountable” could prove both more difficult and more divisive than Clinton implies.

The overwhelming majority of people in the United States, Turkey and 11 countries in the Europe Union are concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, according to a new survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, released September 15. Contrary to Clinton’s claim, Americans and Europeans disagree about how to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. Nevertheless, there is surprising residual backing among normally peace-loving Europeans for a military strike against Iran if all else fails to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program.

These findings confirm previous results obtained in the Pew Global Attitudes Survey in many of the same countries, indicating strong support in the West for stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear armaments. But public opinion in non-Western countries, especially in the Muslim world, suggests Clinton’s claim of a “broad consensus” is overblown at best.

Constraining Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions remains a high-stakes work in progress.

Iran is not at all popular in most parts of the world. Majorities or pluralities in 18 of 22 countries Pew surveyed this summer, including people in many predominantly Muslim nations, express unfavorable opinions about the Islamic Republic.        

More than eight in ten people in Germany (86 percent) and France (81 percent) view Iran unfavorably. Smaller majorities in Britain (58 percent), Japan (75 percent),  China (60 percent) and India (55 percent) also see Iran in a negative light.

Populations in four predominantly Muslim countries similarly give Iran a thumbs down, including Egyptians (66 percent), Jordanians (63 percent), Lebanese (60 percent) and Turks (58 percent). The only majority support for Iran that Pew found is in Pakistan, 72 percent, and Indonesia, 62 percent.

Most people around the world are worried about Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Enlarge GraphPew Research Center Poll: Iran Acquiring Nuclear Weapons.

The overwhelming majority of Europeans, 79 percent, and Americans, 86 percent, questioned by the German Marshall Fund are concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. Such fear is greatest in the United States, Germany and Italy. Only in Turkey does only a plurality, 40 percent, of people tell pollsters that they have little or no concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This past summer Pew asked a slightly different question of a broader public. Queried if they favor or oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, majorities – in many places overwhelming majorities – oppose Tehran’s efforts. But there were notable exceptions: 58 percent Pakistanis actually favor Iran obtaining a nuclear arsenal, as do 91 percent of Shia Muslims in Lebanon and 48 percent of Muslims in Nigeria. A third of Indians also support an Iranian nuclear capacity. In weighing the dangers of a nuclear-armed neighbor versus any implication that their own nuclear program might be illegitimate, Pakistanis and a significant minority of Indians seem intent on defending their own prerogatives.

And Clinton should be careful about taking too much credit for international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. Publics give little credit to US efforts: Only a bare majority, 52 percent of Americans, and a plurality of Europeans, 49 percent, approve of US President Barack Obama’s overall management of relations with Iran.

In Europe this is the lowest support Obama receives on seven foreign policy issues tested by GMF.

Domestically in the United States, Iran policy is a divisive, partisan issue. Among Democrats, 80 percent approve of their president’s handing of the situation; only 26 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of independents agree.

Despite being similarly troubled about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, American and European opinions differ about how to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

A plurality of Europeans, 35 percent, in the survey prefers offering economic incentives to Tehran to get that government to halt its nuclear activities. A plurality of Americans, 40 percent, favors economic sanctions. This divergence in transatlantic sentiment is notable because if the sanctions recently imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council fail to curb Tehran’s behavior, Washington is expected to pressure its allies to up the ante. The European public may prove reluctant.  

Pew, which did not offer respondents the option of positive incentives and which conducted its survey before the UN June vote, found broad support for sanctions. In 19 of 22 countries, majorities of those who oppose Iran’s nuclear- weapons program said they would approve tougher international economic sanctions on the Islamic republic to try preventing it from developing nuclear weapons. This included 67 percent of Russians, 66 percent of Japanese and 58 percent of the Chinese. But 62 percent of Pakistanis opposed such measures, as did 49 percent of Indians.

The German Marshall Fund found little support for simply accepting Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons without trying to stop Tehran: 6 percent in the EU countries and 4 percent in the US. Only in Turkey is a significant minority – 25 percent – willing to accept a nuclear Iran. Nevertheless, few Europeans or Americans prefer military action over other options, 6 and 9 percent, respectively.

Respondents showed somewhat surprising support for a hard line when asked to imagine that all nonmilitary options for stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions had been exhausted and they had a choice between accepting a nuclear Iran or taking military action against the Islamic Republic. In this scenario, a plurality of Europeans, 43 percent, and a majority of Americans, 64 percent, favor a military strike against Iran. Only the British (57 percent) and the Turks (54 percent) would accept a nuclear-armed Iran under these circumstances.

Pew also asked those who opposed Iran acquiring nuclear weapons what they thought was more important – preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons or avoiding a military conflict. Of those who oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, some expressed support for the use of military force:  majorities in Egypt (55 percent), Jordan (53 percent); and India (52 percent) and pluralities in Lebanon (44 percent) and Indonesia (39 percent). On the other hand, most Japanese (55 percent) who oppose Iran’s nuclear-weapons program say the priority should be to avoid a military conflict as do a plurality of Chinese (34 percent).

This was not necessarily the “broad consensus” Clinton talked about. But it is one that’s emerging, with potentially fateful consequences.

In the months ahead policymakers must gauge whether Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program is being curtailed and, if not, what to do next. A military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could fail to achieve all security objectives and instead trigger terrorist reprisals around the world, especially in Israel, and disrupt oil supplies, plunging the world into recession. But global publics, with some notable exceptions, seem willing to consider this option if the alternative is a nuclear Iran.


Bruce Stokes is the international columnist for the National Journal and a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Click here for the German Marshall Fund survey.
Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization