Perspectives Papers on Current Affairs
October 24, 2010
American Public Opinion
Toward Iran's Nuclear Program:
Moving Towards Confrontation
Prof. Eytan Gilboa
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Contrary to common wisdom, an in-depth analysis of US public opinion polls shows that most Americans increasingly understand that the radical Islamic regime in Iran must be confronted. Few believe that President Obama's strategy of engagement and negotiation with Iran will be successful. Indeed, over the past two years, a substantial majority of Americans have come to support the use of military force against Iran – if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Poll results indicate much more public determination to stop Iran than has been evidenced in official American policy and action.
Public opinion plays a significant role in the formulation of American foreign policy. This general principle is especially relevant to President Barack Obama, who became president partly due to his outstanding rhetorical performance and his ability to mobilize voters in support of him and his policy proposals.
Public opinion has been disappointed by the abysmal results of the controversial US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has supported withdrawal from these areas. The US, however, is a world power and many peoples around the world expect Washington to lead and achieve common world goals of security, peace and stability. The US and Iran have been engaged in a conflict over these goals.
Iran is today arguably the greatest threat to US national security and to Middle East regional stability. Iran combines calls for Islamic revolutions across the Middle East with the elimination of Israel, the sponsoring of terrorism and the building of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. Iran has sponsored violence against the US and its allies throughout the Middle East, and is attempting to build an Islamic anti-Western strategic axis with Syria and Turkey, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and eventually also with Iraq and Afghanistan. The combination of extreme ideology and weapons of mass destruction makes Iran potentially the most dangerous state in the world today.
The key to the Iranian imperial designs is nuclear weapons. Both the EU and the US believe that Iran plans to build nuclear weapons, and not just nuclear infrastructure for energy and peaceful purposes, as it has claimed. But so far, Western countries have failed to halt rapid Iranian advancement toward the bomb.
This paper investigates recent trends in US public opinion regarding the American approach to Iran, including Iran's nuclear goals; threat perception; prevention; and the military option. Poll results indicate much more public determination to stop Iran than has been evidenced in American official policy and action.
Iran's Nuclear Goals
Americans have consistently and continuously rejected the Iranian claim of building a nuclear infrastructure for peaceful purposes only. Table 1 shows that since 2006, an average of 80% of the respondents to polls conducted by various organizations didn’t believe the Iranian claims. Two surveys taken at the end of 2009 show that the percentage holding this opinion has grown to 87-88%, the highest in four years.
Table 1: Iran's Nuclear Goals, 2006-2009 1: "Based on what you have heard or read, do you think that the government of Iran is or is not attempting to develop its own nuclear weapons?" (CNN/ORC Wording)
Jan 06||CNN/ORC||80%||12%|| 8%|
Oct 07||CNN/ORC||77%||18%|| 5%|
Oct 09||ADL/Marttila||83%|| 7%||10%|
Oct 09||ABC/WP||87%|| 8%|| 4%|
Oct 09||CNN/ORC||88%||11%|| 2%|
Polls: CNN/ORC (CNN News/Opinion Research Corporation); ADL/Marttila (Anti-Defamation League/ Marttila Communications); ABC/WP (ABC News/ Washington Post).
Most Americans view Iran as "unfriendly" or an "enemy" of the US. In 2007, a CBS/New York Times poll found that an overwhelming majority – 82% of the population – held this view. In a 2009 Rasmussen poll, 70% said that Iran was an "enemy" of the US. Most Americans also agreed that the Iranian nuclear program represents a major threat to the US. Table 2 shows that in 2001, 55% said nuclear Iran represents a "major threat" to the US. In 2009, this figure rose to over 70%. Only a minute fraction of the respondents didn't view Iran as a threat. The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project found an overwhelming majority of Americans, 86%, believing that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a "serious threat" to the US. A year later, Public Opinion Strategies found a similar majority of 87% expressing the same opinion. In the same survey, 96% thought that a nuclear Iran would pose a serious threat to Israel, and 80% thought that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it was likely to use them. In the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 94% opposed Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
Americans were also asked to evaluate several possible actual manifestations of the threat. In 2006 for example, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found an overwhelming majority of 80% saying that if Iran developed nuclear weapons it was "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to "provide a nuclear weapon to terrorists who would use it against the US." A similar percentage selected the same response to the same question about Israel. Fifty-nine percent said "the Iranian government would use nuclear weapons against the US," and 76% held the same view about an attack on Israel. In the 2007 Pew poll, 90% said that a nuclear Iran is likely to share nuclear technology or materials with terrorist organizations. In the McLaughlin Group poll of October 2010, 86% of the respondents agreed that "Iran will use its nuclear weapons to threaten the supply of Middle Eastern oil to the US and its allies;" only 10% disagreed.
Table 2: Iran's Nuclear Program as a Threat to the US, 2001-2009 2: "Do you think that Iran's nuclear program is a major threat, a minor threat or not a threat to the well being of the US?"
Despite the wide consensus about the serious threats a nuclear Iran would present to the US, Israel and other American allies, Americans weren't sure about the best way to prevent that outcome. Survey questions presented three possible means: diplomacy, economic sanctions and military action. When the three were mentioned in one comparative format, most Americans preferred diplomatic and economic efforts. In 2006, a CNN/ORC poll found support for these means over force by a 63% to 13% ratio. In 2010, the same question yielded a 63% to 23% majority. In the 2006 poll, 21% of the respondents preferred no US action of any kind, while in 2010 this percentage was cut by half. From 2006-2009, the CBS News poll presented respondents with a similar choice with an emphasis on immediate action: "military action now" vs. "diplomacy now." In the four year period, the results varied only slightly. A majority of respondents preferred diplomacy over military action by an average ratio of 58% to 15%.
When polls separately examined opinions on the three alternative means to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the highest majorities still preferred diplomacy and sanctions over military action. In the ABC/Washington Post poll of 15-18 October 2009, 82% supported "diplomatic talks" and 78% supported "economic sanctions," while 54% opposed "US bombing of Iran's nuclear development sites." However, in a CNN/ORC poll conducted on the same days (16-18 October 2009), 78% and 77% respectively favored "diplomatic negotiations" or "economic sanctions," but 54% favored "military action."
While the American public preferred diplomacy and economic sanctions, it wasn't very optimistic about the results. In a Pew poll of October 2009, 64% said that "negotiating directly with Iran will not work in getting Iran to give up its nuclear program;" only 22% thought it would work. Fifty-six percent said that economic sanctions wouldn't work either; only 32% thought otherwise. In the McLaughlin Group poll of October 2010, 79% of the respondents didn't think that "Obama's policies toward Iran will stop them from getting nuclear weapons;" only 13% thought otherwise.
If nuclear Iran represents a serious threat to the US and its allies, and if diplomacy and economic sanctions wouldn't work, what should the US do? One alternative suggested by pollsters was to rely on the UN to deal with the problem. But the American public had little confidence in the UN ability to "handle the situation relating to Iran's nuclear program." In a USA Today/Gallup poll of April 2006, 67% said they had no confidence in the UN, and only 33% thought otherwise.
The Military Option
This picture leaves only one remaining option – military action. Responses cited earlier reveal opposition to the use of force, but more detailed investigation shows a more complex attitude. Polling data shows that since 2006 the American public has become increasingly more willing to support military action as an option in itself or in the case that diplomacy and economic sanctions fail to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Table 3 presents responses to different questions and contexts on the military option. Until 2007, most polls show public opposition to a military action. In 2009 and 2010 the trend has completely changed. Since 2009 all the polls cited in Table 3 show clear majorities supporting or favoring the military option. The two polls taken in 2010 reveal the highest public support for this option: 65% to 25% in the Fox news/OD poll and 60% to 30% in the McLaughlin poll.
Table 3: US Military Action against Iran, 2006-2010
"If Iran continues with its nuclear research and is close to developing a nuclear weapon, do you believe that the United States should or should not initiate military action to destroy Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons?" (NBC/WSJ)|
"Do you think America should take military action to stop Iran from developing or trying to develop a nuclear weapons program?" (ADL/Marttila)|
Oct 08||55%||42%|| 3%|
"Would you favor or oppose US military action against Iran in an attempt to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?" (CNN/ORC)|
Oct 09||54%||45%|| 1%|
"Do you support or oppose the US taking military action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons?" (FOX/OD)|
"Would you approve or disapprove of the following proposal? Using the military to attack and destroy the facilities in Iran which are necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, if sanctions don't work" (McLaughlin Group).|
Polls: See Table 1; NBC/WSJ (NBC News/Wall Street Journal) FOX/OD (Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics). Sources: See Table 1.
The CNN/ORC poll of April 2006 asked those who opposed military action the following question: "Suppose the US does take economic and diplomatic action, but those don't work. If that happens, do you think the US should or shouldn't take military action against Iran?" Thirty percent said yes. Together with the 13% who were in favor of a military action as a first choice, the overall ratio was 46% vs. 43% against military action. In February 2010, the distribution of responses to the same question represented a major change: now 59% (36% plus 23%) supported military action and only 39% opposed it. In the April-May 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 64% of the respondents said that "it is more important: to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action," than "to avoid a military conflict with Iran, even if it means they may develop nuclear weapons." Only 24% said that it is more important to "avoid a military conflict."
Several polls added the Israeli attack option. In 2005 and 2007, the ADL/Marttila poll found pluralities of 49% vs. 36% and 47 % vs. 39% respectively supporting an Israeli military operation. In 2008, a greater majority of 63% to 32% approved Israeli military strikes, if diplomacy failed. Similarly, in the McLaughlin poll of October 2010, 58% vs. 29% approved a hypothetical Israeli operation. The final question was on what the US should do if Israel attacked the Iranian nuclear facilities. The Rasmussen poll found that since 2008, the number of respondents who said the US should "help Israel" was growing, while the number of those saying the US should "do nothing" was shrinking. In 2010, 51% said the US should help Israel while 35% thought the US shouldn't do anything.
The analysis of polls conducted in the US over the last decade draws a clear picture. Most Americans don't believe Iranian claims regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. Most consider Iran unfriendly or an enemy of the US and think that a nuclear Iran would be a serious threat to the US. Many Americans believe that a nuclear Iran would give nuclear weapons or nuclear technology to terrorist organizations, and many even believe that Iran would use nuclear weapons against the US and its allies.
Most Americans prefer diplomacy or UN approved sanctions to deal with the Iranian nuclear weapons program, but majorities don't believe these means will persuade Iran to stop its program. Majorities do not believe that Obama's strategy of engagement and negotiation with Iran will be successful. Over the last two years, substantial majorities have come to support the military option, especially if diplomacy and sanctions fail.
This is a remarkable result, because many scholars and journalists have suggested that due to strong public opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public would not support the opening of another front – with Iran. The public opinion survey data reviewed in this paper suggests otherwise. There is much more American public determination to stop Iran than has been evidenced in official US policy and action.
Eytan Gilboa is a professor of political science and communication, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and director of the Center for International Communication, all at Bar-Ilan University. The author thanks Chen Pikholz-Ran for her research assistance.
BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
1 Polling Report. Iran. (Retrieved 10 October 2010). Available at:
http://www.pollingreport.com/iran.htm. Jewish Virtual Library. American Public Opinion toward Iran. (Retrieved 10 October 2010). Available at:
2 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Retrieved 10 October 2010). Available at: http://people-press.org/questions
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