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).
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.