June 13, 2006

America’s Image Slips, But Allies Share U.S. Concerns Over Iran, Hamas

II. Iran and the Nuclear Question

Beyond the immediate issue of Iran’s nuclear program, there is widespread sentiment – especially in the West – that countries that do not have nuclear weapons should be prevented from developing them. Overwhelming majorities in Germany (91%), Japan (87%) and France (85%) say non-nuclear countries should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. Roughly three-quarters in Great Britain (77%), the United States (74%), and Russia (73%) also say that countries that do not have nuclear weapons should be prevented from developing such weapons.

Attitudes in Muslim countries on halting nuclear weapons proliferation divide along about the same lines as opinions on Iran’s nuclear program. A narrow majority in Jordan (53%), 50% of Pakistanis, and 44% of Egyptians say non-nuclear countries should not be stopped in their attempts to develop nuclear weapons; comparable percentages in all three countries say they favor Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Most Indonesians (61%) and Turks (58%) say countries that do not possess nuclear weapons should be prevented from developing them. Majorities in these countries also expressed opposition to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Divided Over Iran

Publics in Muslim and non-Muslim countries have deeply divided opinions about Iran – its nuclear program, its government, even the country itself. Solid majorities in four of the five predominantly Muslim countries express favorable opinions of Iran. In contrast, large majorities in most major industrialized countries – as well as pluralities in India and China – view Iran negatively.

More than three-quarters of Indonesians (77%) and nearly as many Pakistanis (72%) have favorable opinions of Iran. Smaller majorities in Egypt (59%) and Turkey (53%) also express positive views. Jordan is the only Muslim country surveyed where the public is divided – 49% express positive opinions of Iran and 51% negative ones.

Nigerians’ views of Iran underscore the divide over Iran between Muslims and non-Muslims. Overall opinion in Nigeria, where Muslims constitute about half the population, is evenly split (43% favorable/44% unfavorable). However, there are huge differences between the country’s Muslim and Christian populations; more than three-quarters of Nigeria’s Muslims (78%) express favorable views of Iran, compared with just 10% of Nigerian Christians.

In three of four Western European countries surveyed – Germany, France and Spain – two-thirds or more express negative opinions of Iran. The lone exception is Great Britain, where unfavorable opinions of Iran outnumber favorable ones by a slight margin (39%-34%).

Most Americans (57%) view Iran negatively, though the percentage expressing unfavorable opinions has fallen significantly from the recent past. In a February 2006 survey by the Gallup Organization 86% had an unfavorable view of Iran; that is fairly consistent with findings from Gallup surveys dating to 2002.

Little Confidence in Ahmadinejad

While publics in most Muslim countries have high regard for the country of Iran, they voice more negative opinions of its president. Roughly two-thirds in both Egypt (68%) and Jordan (65%) say they have little or no confidence in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “do the right thing” in world affairs. In Turkey, 41% say they have no confidence in the Ahmadinejad, while only a quarter of Turks say they have a lot or some confidence in the Iranian president.

Indonesia (48%) and Nigeria (40%) are the only countries surveyed where pluralities say they have at least some confidence in Ahmadinejad. In Nigeria, views of the Iranian leader – like those of the country itself – are split along religious lines. While 69% of Nigeria’s Muslims say they have confidence in Iran’s president, just 13% of the country’s Christians share that view.

Western Europeans express even less confidence in Ahmadinejad than do the publics of Muslim countries. Majorities in Germany (60%), France (57%) and Spain (53%) say they have no confidence in the Iranian leader. Opinion of Iran’s president is less negative in Great Britain; still, 39% say they have no confidence and 21% not too much confidence in Ahmadinejad.

More See Iran as Danger

An increasing number in the U.S., as well as in Western Europe and Russia, believe that the government of Iran represents a danger to Mideast stability and world peace. Nearly half of Americans (46%) now say that the Iranian government poses a great danger to global peace; three years ago, just 26% expressed this opinion.

The shift has been even more dramatic among Western European publics; 51% of Germans believe the current government in Tehran is a great danger to world peace, up from 18% in May 2003. In Spain, France and Great Britain, the percentage of people who see Iran as a great danger has roughly tripled compared with three years ago.

Fewer Russians than Americans or Western Europeans think the government of Iran represents a serious danger (20%). However, about half of Russians (52%) say Iran poses a great or at least a moderate danger to regional stability and world peace. In May 2003, just 17% of Russians thought that Iran represented at least a moderate danger.

Iran’s government is viewed as far less dangerous by publics in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed. Nonetheless, 19% of Jordanians say the government of Iran represents a great danger – and 25% a moderate danger – to stability in the Middle East and world peace; in May 2003, just 16% viewed Iran as a great or moderate danger. Opinion on this issue has been more stable in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In each of these countries, as well as in Egypt, no more than about a third believes that the Iranian government poses a great or moderate danger to peace and stability.

Iran’s Nuclear Goal – Weapons

In the Middle East and major industrialized countries, overwhelming numbers of citizens say they have heard of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. But this is not the case in other countries. A majority in China (54%) has not heard of the issue, and substantial minorities in Pakistan (45%), Indonesia (41%), and Nigeria (40%) also are unaware of the Iran nuclear controversy.

The dominant opinion among those who have heard about the nuclear dispute – in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike – is that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons, either as its sole objective or along with developing nuclear energy.

In major industrialized countries, with the exception of Great Britain, large majorities express the opinion that the goal of Iran’s nuclear program is nuclear weapons; relatively few volunteer that Tehran has the dual goals of weapons and energy. The idea that Iran seeks both weapons and energy is a much more prevalent view in other countries. In Egypt, 30% think that Iran’s aim is nuclear weapons, while about as many (28%) think the goal of its nuclear program is both weapons and energy. Relatively high percentages in Jordan and Turkey (28% in each) also volunteer that Iran wants to develop both weapons and energy from its nuclear program.

More than four-in-ten Indonesians (44%) say the goal of Iran’s nuclear program is energy – the highest percentage of the 15 nations surveyed. Still, somewhat more Indonesians (a combined 51%) say Iran’s goal is either to develop nuclear weapons (33%), or volunteer that it wants both weapons and energy (18%).

What Would Iran Do?

There is no consensus about what Iran would be likely to do if it in fact develops nuclear weapons. But Americans and Western Europeans generally believe that two cataclysmic scenarios are likely – that Iran would provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations, and that it would attack Israel.

Large majorities in the U.S. and Western Europe, as well as about half of Japanese (52%), say that if Iran develops nuclear weapons it would be likely to provide them to terrorist groups. An Iranian attack on Israel also is viewed as likely by most Americans and Western Europeans.

The publics in predominantly Muslim countries mostly believe a nuclear-armed Iran would use such weapons for defensive purposes only. Fully 80% of Indonesians and smaller majorities in other Muslim countries say Iran is likely to use nuclear weapons only in its own defense. In addition, relatively small minorities in all five Muslim countries surveyed feel that Iran is likely to pass along nuclear weapons to terrorists.

At the same time, however, more than six-in-ten in Jordan (65%) and Egypt (61%) say that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it would be likely to attack Israel; about half of Turks (51%) and Indonesians (49%) agree. And in Jordan and Egypt, in particular, sizable minorities favor Iran actually acquiring nuclear weapons (45% and 44%, respectively).

There also is a widespread belief, in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike, that a nuclear-armed Iran is likely to attack the United States or European nations. Two-thirds of Spaniards (66%) and nearly as many Americans (63%) say such an attack is likely. Roughly half of the respondents in France, Germany and Britain – as well as in Turkey, Indonesia and Jordan – say an attack by Iran on the U.S. or Europe is likely.

In both Pakistan and China, relatively large percentages declined to offer opinions on possible actions by Iran, if it were to develop nuclear weapons. In each country, just 37% have heard of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program; that is by far the lowest level of awareness among the 15 countries surveyed.