How West sees Iran's nuclear program
October 16th, 2013
08:51 AM ET

How West sees Iran's nuclear program

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

As American, European, Russian, Chinese and Iranian negotiators jockey in Geneva over ending the West’s economic sanctions on Tehran in return for a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, European and U.S. publics are sending negotiators on both sides a clear message: they oppose Iran having nuclear armaments. They agree on the current imposition of economic sanctions. And they generally support the use of military force if sanctions fail. The Chinese and Russian publics, though, dissent.

At a time when people on both sides of the Atlantic have turned critical of the Afghan War and have recoiled from involvement in Syria’s civil war, there is relative cohesion on Iran in both Europe and the United States. Indeed, there are some signs such solidarity may be strengthening. Yet although Iranian negotiators in Geneva will find little daylight between the American and European publics that they can exploit, differences between transatlantic views and those held by the Chinese and Russian publics may yet prove critical in the talks.

Just 6 percent of Americans and 5 percent of Europeans are willing to accept Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons, according to a recent poll in the United States and 11 European Union nations by the German Marshall Fund. These findings mirror those of a spring 2013 survey of the Pew Research Center. Attitudes among the publics in the countries represented in Geneva – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – have changed little since last year. The notable exception is China, one of Iran’s major trading partners, where the Chinese public is more opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran today than in 2012 (62 percent vs. 54 percent).

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The Pew Research Center also found widespread opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions among that country’s neighbors. In the Middle East and North Africa, Israelis, not surprisingly, are the most vocal opponents of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, with 96 percent opposed. But they are not the only concerned public in the region. Strong majorities in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon are also against Iran developing a nuclear arsenal. By comparison, opinion is divided in Tunisia, where 40 percent are comfortable with it, with 47 percent opposed, while Palestinians are the only public surveyed where more than half support Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.

In addition, Europeans and Americans agree on the use of economic sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. Of those who oppose Iran’s nuclear program, roughly three-quarters or more in the United States, Germany, Britain and France approve of tougher measures, according to the Pew Research Center poll. But only 47 percent share this view in Russia. The Chinese are divided on the question, with 44 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.

So how might countries try to stop Iran? The German Marshall Fund survey found a convergence of transatlantic opinions about how best to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. When asked to choose among various options, which included everything from economic incentives to military force, a plurality of Americans (29 percent) prefer imposing economic sanctions. A plurality of Europeans (32 percent) agree.

In the GMF survey, very few Europeans and Americans favor military action to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons when given a broad choice of options. But when those who first favored a non-military action were asked what they would support if all non-military options are exhausted and they had to choose between accepting a nuclear Iran and backing a military strike, public attitudes toughen. In this scenario, a plurality of Europeans and a majority of Americans favor the use of force.

The Pew Research survey asked the question somewhat differently. And, among those who oppose Iran having nuclear weapons, the poll found that nearly half or more in the United States (64 percent), France (58 percent), Germany (50 percent) and Britain (48 percent) favor taking military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, rather than accepting Iran as a nuclear state. But just over a quarter in Russia and a little more than a third in China back a military option given that choice. These results have not changed markedly in the last few years.

So, American and European negotiators have gone to the bargaining table in Geneva with solid public backing. Transatlantic differences in public opinion about how to proceed are minimal. Any dissonance is with the Chinese and Russian publics. And even the Chinese, it seems, have become more wary of the Iranian nuclear program.

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Topics: Europe • Iran • Nuclear • United States

soundoff (12 Responses)
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  3. WERTWERT32452345

    It is true that Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons but they do have a right to develop nuclear energy in order to generate electricity. In fact, France gets 82% of it's electrical energy from nuclear plants so why can't the Iranians do the same thing? This is all so stupid on the part of the West!

    October 16, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • Blake

      Of course they should be allowed to utilize nuclear energy, but there's little reason why we should block them from developing nuclear weapons. They are not going to use them on Israel, because Israel and all of its allies are nuclear-armed. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the greatest deterrent from use of nuclear weapons; it kept two superpowers in check for 50 years during the Cold War.

      October 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Well said, Blake. Yes, MAD is and was the only deterrent possible. Had the Russians not succeeded in coming up with their own nuclear bomb in 1949, WW3 could very well have taken place with even more disastrous results than WW2!

        October 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  4. tms5510

    If the public know that any military intervention is fruitless unless west is willing to occupy Iran, I bet their opinion will change.

    October 16, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  5. Iranian citizen

    Iran is going to have nuclear "energy" not nuclear weapon, any research must be on this base.

    October 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  6. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    October 17, 2013 at 3:38 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Although Rouhani repeatedly said that Iran's nuclear programme was for civilian purposes and the Supreme Leader deemed nuclear weapons totally against Islamic values, the world is not ready to take these words at face value and wants to see concrete deeds.
    The atmosphere at the nuclear talks were different this time compared to those in the past. The differences are still the same, but with a load of goodwill, they aren't insurmountable.

    October 17, 2013 at 8:01 am | Reply
  8. Dmitry

    Put up a water based electricity. Iran does not strike me like a fellow that I trust with all that uranium. It's their fundamental, fascist, radical belief system that worries me.

    To put it bluntly we invaded Iran over less!

    October 18, 2013 at 9:21 am | Reply

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