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U.S. Public Sceptical and Hawkish on Iran

Despite strong support for diplomatic engagement with Iran, most U.S. citizens believe such efforts will ultimately fail.

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Despite strong support for diplomatic engagement with Iran, most U.S. citizens believe such efforts will ultimately fail and that Washington should be prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to a new poll released here Tuesday by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press.

Sixty-one percent of the 1,500 respondents interviewed by Pew said it was “more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action” than to “avoid military conflict”, according to the survey, which was conducted over a five-day period ending Monday.

At the same time, 63 percent of respondents – an increase of nine percent since last time Pew posed the question, in 2006 – said they approved of Washington negotiating directly with Iran over the future of its nuclear programme, as it began doing last Thursday in Geneva where the two countries held their highest-level public talks in 30 years.

But the poll also found great scepticism that either talks or, for that matter, increased economic sanctions will succeed in dissuading Iran from giving up its nuclear programme.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they did not believe direct negotiations would work, while a somewhat smaller 56 percent doubted that tougher economic sanctions would have the desired effect.

The survey comes amid a growing debate here over the results of the Oct. 1 Geneva talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the U.S., and Germany.

Those talks, which included an unprecedented 45-minute tete-a-tete between the Iranian envoy, Saeed Jalili, and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, produced two key agreements in principle: that Iran will promptly open a recently disclosed nuclear facility near Qom to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and that it will send most of its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium that it has developed at its Natanz enrichment facility to Russia and France to be further enriched to produce isotopes for medical purposes.

Most Iran specialists here have praised the results as potential breakthroughs that, if quickly implemented, could defuse growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme and repeated threats by Israeli officials to take pre-emptive military action against key facilities to prevent or delay its acquisition of a weapon.

Indeed, the fact that Tehran is willing to export most of its stockpile – which western intelligence agencies believe has grown large enough to theoretically make one bomb – is seen as a major confidence-building measure that would buy more time for the diplomatic track to bear fruit.

The IAEA is supposed to work out the technicalities of the transfer later this month.

But neo-conservatives and other hawks have tried to depict the talks as meaningless, arguing that Tehran is unlikely to comply with any “agreement in principle” and that, in any event, it continues to produce enriched uranium in defiance of Security Council demands dating back three years that it cease.

“Once again, Washington has entered the morass of negotiations with Tehran, giving Iran precious time to refine and expand its nuclear program,” wrote George W. Bush’s far-right U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, in the Wall Street Journal Monday. “We are now even further from eliminating Iran’s threat than before Geneva.”

The hawks, who are concentrated in the so-called “Israel Lobby”, have long argued that Iran is bound and determined to acquire nuclear weapons and thus that negotiations are a waste of time.

They have instead called for Washington to immediately impose “crippling sanctions” against Tehran – some of which are now being considered actively by Congress – as a last resort before taking pre-emptive military action or giving a “green light” to Israel to do so.

The new poll offers ammunition to both sides in the ongoing debate.

On the one hand, it suggests that a strong majority supports Obama’s strategy of diplomatic engagement and that that support is bipartisan. Nearly two out of every three self-identified Democrats and Republicans believe Washington should engage in direct talks with Iran.

But Democrats are more hopeful than Republicans that Washington and its allies will be successful in getting Iran to curb its nuclear programme. Just one out of 10 Republicans believes talks alone will work; the comparable percentage for Democrats is one out of three.

At the same time, nearly eight out of 10 respondents favour tougher economic sanctions against Iran as a source of leverage. Again, the pollsters found little partisan difference either on support for sanctions – 72 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republican – or on their likely effectiveness – 57 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats said they doubted that sanctions would work.

The biggest partisan difference was found over the willingness to take military action if neither talks nor sanctions produce the desired effect.

Seventy-one percent of Republicans agreed that it was “more important” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, “even if it means taking military action”, while 51 percent of Democrats took that position.

Indeed, only three out of 10 Democrats said it was “more important to avoid military conflict, even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons”.

The majority’s willingness to use force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon stands in marked contrast to survey results during the last years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Pluralities of nearly 50 percent told NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls in 2007 and 2008 that the U.S. “should not initiate military action… if Iran continues with its nuclear research and is close to developing a nuclear weapon.”

In late 2007, a majority of 55 percent of respondents told a Gallup Poll that Washington “should not take military action against Iran… (if) U.S. economic and diplomatic efforts do not work”. Only 34 percent said they thought military action would be appropriate.

The increased public hawkishness toward Iran was also reflected in a the latest in a series of annual surveys of U.S. Jewish opinion released last week by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Its survey, which was conducted during the first half of September, found that 56 percent of Jews would support, and 36 percent would oppose, U.S. military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

In its 2008 survey, the AJC found that 47 percent of U.S. Jews were opposed to military action, while 42 percent supported it.

Two-thirds of the 800 Jewish respondents who took part in the latest poll said they would support Israel’s taking military action against Iran, while 28 said they would oppose it.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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