Most Americans support using force to prevent a nuclear Iran

During this year’s Republican primary, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have all suggested that they would use military force if necessary to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. And tensions between Washington and Tehran have only increased as speculation swirls about an imminent Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iranian officials trumpet their nuclear advances, ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

During this year's Republican primary, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have all suggested that they would use military force if necessary to dismantle Iran's nuclear program. And tensions between Washington and Tehran have only increased as speculation swirls about an imminent Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iranian officials trumpet their nuclear advances, and mysterious bombings appear to target Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India, and Thailand. 

But how does the American public view the situation in Iran? New polling from the Pew Research Center this morning suggests that Americans are in a rather bellicose mood when it comes to confronting Iran, and pessimistic about the power of sanctions to keep Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

In the survey, 58 percent of respondents said it was more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if that meant taking military action. Only 30 percent preferred avoiding a military conflict even if it meant Iran going nuclear. Republicans (74 percent) were far more supportive of using military force than Democrats (50 percent), but Democratic backing was still substantial.

During this year’s Republican primary, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have all suggested that they would use military force if necessary to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. And tensions between Washington and Tehran have only increased as speculation swirls about an imminent Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iranian officials trumpet their nuclear advances, and mysterious bombings appear to target Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India, and Thailand. 

But how does the American public view the situation in Iran? New polling from the Pew Research Center this morning suggests that Americans are in a rather bellicose mood when it comes to confronting Iran, and pessimistic about the power of sanctions to keep Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

In the survey, 58 percent of respondents said it was more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if that meant taking military action. Only 30 percent preferred avoiding a military conflict even if it meant Iran going nuclear. Republicans (74 percent) were far more supportive of using military force than Democrats (50 percent), but Democratic backing was still substantial.

Around half of Americans, meanwhile, believe the United States should remain neutral if Israel strikes Iran. But, as Pew points out, more respondents said the United States should support (39 percent) Israel than oppose (5 percent) it. A majority of Republicans think the United States should back Israel while a majority of Democrats think it should stay neutral. 

Pew notes that there are nuances in the data as well. Women and young people, for example, are more likely to support the United States staying neutral in an Israeli-Iranian conflict. And, not surprisingly, conservative Republicans, including Tea Party supporters, are more likely to champion American support of Israeli military action than moderate or liberal Republicans.

Where there’s more agreement across the aisle is in the belief that tough economic sanctions — a tactic the Obama administration continues to pursue — will be ineffective in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Sixty-four percent of the public thinks these measures will not work, compared with 56 percent in October 2009.

Of course, supporting military force if it means preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons (in other words, approving of it as a last resort) isn’t the same as a full-throated endorsement of the military option. In a Quinnipiac University poll in November, 36 percent of respondents supported the use of force in any case, while an additional 14 percent backed the option if sanctions failed. In a CNN/ORC survey around the same time, more than six in 10 respondents selected "economic and diplomatic efforts" — not "military action right now" — as the best U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.

If Americans are so down on economic sanctions as an effective solution, however, one wonders whether they’re beginning to resign themselves to a military conflict, even if they have little appetite for it.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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