Americans and Israelis Don’t See Eye to Eye on Iran

When it comes to the nuclear threat from Tehran, there’s a growing gulf between Washington and Jerusalem.

By , a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

As negotiators convene in Geneva in an effort to reach agreement on curbing Iran's nuclear program, the American people are supportive of a deal, even though they are fairly cynical about the likelihood of it working. And their support may put them at odds with the Israelis, their long-time regional allies, portending possible further disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington in the months ahead.

Moreover, Americans are divided along partisan lines on the way forward with Iran. Younger Americans are even more likely to differ with Israelis about Iran, suggesting disagreements over Tehran's nuclear program may be with us for some time to come.

Americans back an interim accord with Tehran that would impede the Iranian nuclear program and set the stage for a final deal that may even roll back that program. A strong majority (64 percent) say the United States and other countries should lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Tehran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey. But roughly six in ten Americans (61 percent) also have little or no confidence that such an agreement would actually prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

As negotiators convene in Geneva in an effort to reach agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear program, the American people are supportive of a deal, even though they are fairly cynical about the likelihood of it working. And their support may put them at odds with the Israelis, their long-time regional allies, portending possible further disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington in the months ahead.

Moreover, Americans are divided along partisan lines on the way forward with Iran. Younger Americans are even more likely to differ with Israelis about Iran, suggesting disagreements over Tehran’s nuclear program may be with us for some time to come.

Americans back an interim accord with Tehran that would impede the Iranian nuclear program and set the stage for a final deal that may even roll back that program. A strong majority (64 percent) say the United States and other countries should lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Tehran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey. But roughly six in ten Americans (61 percent) also have little or no confidence that such an agreement would actually prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the nature of partisanship today, Republicans and Democrats are split over a prospective Iranian deal: 72 percent of Democrats support such an accord, while only 57 percent of Republicans agree. And 70 percent of Republicans compared with 50 percent of Democrats lack confidence that this agreement would keep Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a deal in Geneva has generated new friction between Israel and the United States. The Obama administration wants to prevent the Iranians from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. The Israeli government wants to prevent Iran from ever having the ability to build such weapons. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing Washington not to finalize the deal now on the table in Geneva.

American-Israeli differences at an official level in part mirror disagreement between their respective publics. Three-quarters of Israelis have a very unfavorable view of Iran, while only 42 percent of Americans share such strong negative sentiments, according to a Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013. The next generation of Americans, those currently between the ages of 18 and 29, are even less likely to see Tehran in a negative light. Just 25 percent have a very unfavorable opinion of Iran. (And that’s before the election of President Hassan Rouhani and his public softening to the West.)

There’s also a critical difference between the United States and Jerusalem when it comes to the immediacy of the nuclear threat from Tehran. While 85 percent of Israelis say that Iran’s nuclear program poses a major threat to Israel, only 54 percent of Americans worry that Tehran’s nuclear activities pose a major threat to the United States, including only 42 percent of the younger generation of Americans.

Nevertheless, Americans (93 percent) and Israelis (96 percent) do agree that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. And, of the vast majority of both populations that oppose Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, 68 percent of Israelis and 64 percent of Americans would support the use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

An Iran agreement eluded negotiators in Geneva in early November, and there is no assurance an interim accord can be concluded in the round of talks going on now. But if a deal is struck, the American public appears willing to back it, even if they aren’t so sure an effective permanent deal is in the offing. Americans differences with Israelis, however, suggest that discord between Jerusalem and Washington over Iran may persist.

Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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