WASHINGTON - Public support for stronger measures, including possible military strikes, to curb or destroy Iran's nuclear programme has declined significantly in most countries around the world compared to 18 months ago, according to a new survey of public opinion released Tuesday by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
In only three of 21 nations -- Turkey, Israel and South Korea -- covered both by the new poll and a previous one taken in June 2006 has there been an increase in public sentiment for tougher measures to enforce U.N. Security Council demands that Tehran freeze its efforts to enrich uranium 2006.
In the 18 others, including the United States, support for imposing economic sanctions or other coercive measures has fallen, while support for a more "softer measures" -- defined as not pressuring Iran at all or using exclusively diplomatic pressure -- has risen proportionately.
Public opinion in an additional 10 countries that were covered in the new poll but were not included in the 2006 survey also showed little support for economic sanctions on Iran to as a means to pressure it to halt its nuclear programme and negligible support for military action.
On the other hand, the new survey found strong support in most countries, including clear majorities in North America and most of Western Europe for a deal with Tehran that would permit it to build a limited capacity to produce nuclear fuel in exchange for a permanent and highly intrusive presence of U.N. nuclear inspectors to ensure that it did not develop nuclear weapons.
"Across the board, we found a diminution in support for stronger measures (to pressure) Iran," said Steven Kull, the director of the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which helped design and conduct the survey, along with the private firm, Globescan.
"In the 2006 poll, we found a pretty widespread perception that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons and that stronger measures to prevent it from doing so were required," he added. "Instead of a desire to risk a confrontation at this point, there now seems to be more of a desire to look for a way out."
Kull, who just returned from Tehran where he conducted a series of focus groups to gauge public opinion there, said he believed Iranians themselves appeared ready for the kind of bargain laid out in the BBC survey. "The theme that very much came through in the focus groups was that they want to have the scientific knowledge (to produce nuclear weapons), but, at this point, they're not interested in acquiring them," Kull said. "That mirrors the government's official line, too," he noted.
The same view was echoed Monday as well in a newly released survey of Iranian opinion by Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT), an independent U.S. group that conducted a similar poll just last year.
Its most recent survey found that, while public support for obtaining nuclear weapons has increased in Iran over the past year to a majority of 52 percent, 70 percent of respondents said they would support an arrangement in which Tehran would accept strict U.N. inspection regime and forswear development or possession of nuclear arms in exchange for aid and normal economic relations with the rest of the world.
The latest BBC poll covered a total of 31 countries, including, for the first time, the five Spanish-speaking Central American countries, and queried some 32,000 adults. It was carried out between early November and late January.
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Most of the polling, however, took place after the release by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush in late November of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear programme.
Contrary to its earlier estimates, the NIE concluded that Iran had suspended one key part of what its authors claimed had been a secret nuclear weapons programme in 2003. Iran has long denied that any intention to develop or obtain nuclear weapons, either secretly or otherwise.
The release of the report, which U.S. neo-conservatives and other hawks have argued was deeply flawed, nonetheless appeared to put an abrupt halt to efforts by these same forces both inside and outside the administration to rally public opinion behind a possible military attack on Tehran before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Kull told IPS that he thought the NIE's conclusions and the way they were reported in the press clearly had an impact not only on U.S. public opinion, but on public sentiment abroad as well.
Despite that impact, the Security Council earlier this month went along with U.S.- and British-led efforts to impose some additional economic and financial sanctions on Iran -- which so far has rejected two previous rounds of U.N. sanctions -- for failing to heed its demand to freeze its enrichment programme. Unlike the previous rounds, however, several developing countries argued that the Council should adopt a less punitive approach.
That preference was echoed in the BBC poll, where respondents in key developing countries, notably Egypt (85 percent), Mexico (80 percent), the Philippines (76 percent), Indonesia and Kenya (72 percent), and Nigeria (66 percent) said they believed that the Council should use softer measures to gain Iran's compliance. Majorities of at least 55 percent in Central America, Western Europe (Germany, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Britain), Turkey, Ghana, China, and Japan took the same position.
Egypt (86 percent) and Mexico (79 percent) were also most supportive of an agreement whereby Iran could produce enough nuclear fuel for its civilian power needs in exchange for unfettered access by U.N. inspectors. Such a bargain was also favoured by a strong majority of respondents in Britain (71 percent); Australia (64 percent); and Canada (58 percent).
Majorities or significant pluralities in Portugal (59 percent); Italy and Canada (58 percent); France, Kenya, and Indonesia (56 percent); the U.S. (55 percent); China (51 percent); Spain (49 percent); and Nigeria (46 percent) also said they supported such a solution.
Majorities in seven of the countries said such a deal should not be acceptable. Opposition was strongest in Israel, where 62 percent of respondents said they opposed it; the Philippines (60 percent); Japan and Turkey (54 percent); South Korea (51 percent). Half of German respondents rejected the deal; 38 percent said they supported it.
Israelis were also the leader in supporting "tougher measures" by the Security Council against Iran. Thirty-seven percent said they wanted more economic sanctions; 34 percent said they wanted the U.N. to authorise a military strike. The U.S. was next-most hawkish; 45 percent of respondents said they favoured economic sanctions, and 15 percent chose the military option.
© 2008 Inter Press Service