Richard C. Eichenberg
Negotiations continue in Vienna on an agreement that would limit the Iranian nuclear program. As the talks continue, it is useful to ask: how will public opinion react if the negotiations fail?
Although the wisdom and likely effectiveness of a military strike against Iran have been much debated, the position of the American government has long been that military action remains “on the table.” Whether President Obama or any future President would choose the military option is obviously uncertain, but one factor that will likely condition the choice is the anticipated reaction of public opinion, both in the United States and in allied countries.
In the US, public support for military action against Iran has been lukewarm over the past ten years –an average of 45 percent from 2002-2013 –although it climbed to over 50 percent after President Obama initiated negotiations with Iran. This is lower than the 60 percent of the public that supported war with Iraq prior to 2003, and it is probably the frustrations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have left Americans less than enthusiastic about further military endeavors.
Another reason may be the simple fact that negotiations are underway and that some progress has already been made in the form of an interim agreement (which the public supports). Public opinion generally favors negotiation and nonmilitary solutions so long as these are realistic alternatives, but pollsters rarely test respondents by asking them what action they would favor should negotiation prove fruitless.
An important exception is a series of questions on Iran in the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends surveys. A first question in the battery asks: “As you may know, efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons are under way. Which of the following do you think is the best option?” Respondents are then offered alternatives that include “military action,” “economic incentives,” “economic sanctions,” “support to opponents of the government,” and “use of computer technology to sabotage nuclear installations.” A final response option is to “accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.”
This is a complicated question, but the public’s preferences are clear: an average of only 7 percent of Europeans in 2014 chose “military action” over the alternatives (in the US it was 12 percent). Among the nonmilitary options, economic incentives and economic sanctions were far and away the most popular options. The breakdown of responses to this question have been very stable since 2010.
A second question was directed to those respondents who chose nonmilitary options in the first question: “And now imagine that all of these non-military options have been tried and the only option left to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the use of military force. In that case, should the [European Union/United States/Turkey/Russia] take military action against Iran, or should [it/they] simply accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons?”
The responses to this second question are shown below: (click to enlarge image)
An important feature of the responses to this question is the unusually high number of “don’t know” and refusals—an average of 22 percent and as high as 30 or 40 percent in some countries. Many respondents simply do not want to answer this question or express an opinion, perhaps because it presents a choice that genuinely conflicts many citizens, or perhaps because they prefer their own alternative (a wish that negotiations could somehow continue?).
Support for military action (combining “military action” in the first and second questions) is divided, although it is higher in some countries than recent levels of support for other military interventions, including intervention in the Syrian civil war (see 2013 and 2014 surveys here). Majorities favoring military action against Iran if negotiations fail exist in only five of the thirteen countries in the survey, although rejection of military action characterizes opinion in several important P5+1 countries, including Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
Nonetheless, I think caution is warranted concerning the firmness of this support. One reason is the high nonresponse rate noted above. I suspect –although it is pure speculation—that many of these respondents would have preferred a response option along the lines of “keep trying…continue negotiation to find an agreement.” If so, actual support levels are probably somewhat lower than those shown above. Further, even if the current negotiations do not succeed (or if violations of any eventual agreement are debated), further negotiation or employment of nonmilitary instruments of policy are likely to follow, and citizens have shown a clear preference for these options over the use of military force. Finally, the questions above refer to “military action” by the “European Union” –only in Turkey, Russia and the US are national military forces referenced. As I showed in this paper, support for using force is always highest when the question refers to an abstract “military action” rather than to a specific action, such as sending troops.
The latter type of specific question was asked in Transatlantic Trends only in 2012 (the overall responses to the preliminary questions were very similar to those from 2014 shown above). Respondents who chose “military action” to either preliminary question were asked further if they would support using their own country’s military forces a.] to conduct air strikes or b.] to send ground troops.
The results are shown below for five of the six countries involved in the P5+1 talks with Iran (there is no survey for China). The chart shows clearly that support for conducting air strikes or sending ground troops is extremely unpopular in every country (although air strikes enjoy majority support in the US, confirming a similar result found by the Chicago Council on World Affairs in 2014). Even lower levels of support characterize opinion in other countries (not shown). The upshot of the results is that, even though respondents may support “military action” in the abstract, they shy away from supporting the use of their own country’s military forces. If the US does conduct airstrikes, it would likely act alone.
Summary and Conclusions
The surveys presented above point to three conclusions. First, negotiations with Iran continue, consumers of polls should be cautious with the proclivity of pollsters to ask about an abstract “military action.” As was the case in the run-up to the Iraq War, support for using force is inflated in such questions. Second, public opinion in all countries prefers nonmilitary instruments of policy when dealing with Iran, including nonmilitary economic coercion. So long as any type of negotiation with Iran continues –even in the absence of a final agreement—public opinion is likely to prefer nonmilitary instruments to the use of military force. Finally, even in the event of a complete breakdown in negotiations –or arguments that any agreement is flawed– support for specific uses of military force, such as air strikes or sending troops, is unpopular based on past patterns. Whether this would change in the context of a renewed harsh tone in relations with Iran remains unknown, but the surveys from 2012 shown immediately above suggest that an attack on Iran would be a hard sell with public opinion in most countries.
Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was an academic adviser to the Transatlantic Trends surveys from 2004 through 2014, which means that I helped write many of the questions. However, I cannot take credit for the Iran questions presented here. They were the brainchild of another academic adviser, Professor Pierangelo Isernia of the University of Sienna.
Thanks to Pierangelo Isernia, Bruce Jentleson, and Dina Smeltz for comments on an earlier draft of this post.