Chicago Council Poll: U.S. Public Against Attacking Iran

The Top choices for "'critical' threats" to the U.S.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released their wide-ranging biennial 2010 survey on Americans’ attitudes on U.S. foreign policy. With Iran such a hot issue these days, it’s no surprise a number of questions focused on U.S.-Iran relations and other issues involving Iran — but some of the responses were indeed surprising.

Most striking (no pun intended) was that only 18 percent of respondents think the U.S. should launch a military strike on Iranian nuclear targets now. Even if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop Iranian advancement toward a bomb, a slim plurality still think the U.S. should not bomb Iran (49 percent oppose it, 47 would support it). More than half of respondents say  if Israel starts a war with Iran, the U.S. should not leap to Israel’s defense.

The Chicago Council, Obama’s hometown think tank, released the report yesterday at the Brookings Institution in D.C., an indication of the Council’s well-connected policy circles. Worth mentioning is that the chairman of the Council’s board of directors is top Obama fundraiser and early supporter Lester Crown, patriarch of the Crown family empire. The Obama administration even announced, at a symposium convened by the Council, food programs based on Council recommendations.

One should note that this survey was conducted in June. That means that the more than 2,700 responses came before the latest round of chatter about attacking Iran, sparked by Jeffrey Goldberg‘s August article about a potential Israeli strike on Iran in the Atlantic.

Before this chatter kicked off, that when respondents were asked should Israel bomb Iran and Iran retaliate, sparking a war between the two, whether the U.S. should stay on the sidelines, “a majority (56%) says the United States should not bring its military forces into such a conflict, with 38 percent saying it should.” (See chart labeled “Figure 14.”)

Should the U.S. jump in to Israel's defense?

The Chicago Council explains this aversion to jumping in, known as “selective engagement,” by pointing to factors like the economic crisis at home. With military forces over-extended already, Americans are not keen on fighting the wars of others. Their focus, according to what the Council calls the First “Principle of Selective Engagement,” is “Support for actions against top threats.” The focus here is on “clear and direct threats to the homeland.”

However, according to survey respondents, Iran does pose a “‘critical’ threat to U.S. vital interests in the next ten years.” The second priority listed in that category — behind “international terrorism,” with 73 percent — was “the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers.” Sixty-nine percent of respondents called it a “‘critical’ threat.” Iran’s nuclear program, as a distinct choice, was a close third on the list with 68 percent giving it the “critical” designation.

The Top choices for "'critical' threats" to the U.S.

But the report notes that “while Americans favor actions to try to stop the country from enriching uranium and developing a weapons program, there is clear hesitation to resort to military action because of the perceived dangers and limits of such a response.” This, says the Chicago Council, is because Americans reported back with some certainty that a litany of negative consequences would follow a U.S. strike on Iran. (See chart, labeled “Figure 48.”) About four in five respondents think nearly every negative consequence of a strike listed is “likely” or “very likely,” and about the same amount think a strike would not cause Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Furthermore, three quarters of respondents thought that a U.S. strike would cause Iranians to rally around their government.

How likely are possible outcomes of a U.S. attack on Iran?

So how would people in the U.S. like to deal with nuclear Iran? The Chicago Council report says (with my emphasis):

At this point in time, Americans favor trying to resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear program through non-military means. More significantly, even though 54 percent now oppose diplomatic relations (up 16 points from 38% in 2002 when 58% were in favor), 62 percent favor U.S. leaders meeting and talking with Iran’s leaders. When asked their views of what the United States should do if Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of the UN Security Council, which has asked it to stop enriching uranium, Americans are not immediately ready to resort to a military strike. Only 18 percent say the United States should carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear energy facilities, with 41 percent preferring to impose economic sanctions and 33 percent wanting to continue diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium (only 4% do not want the United States to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium).

Even if those preferred mechanisms — sanctions and diplomacy — fail, respondents of the survey were nearly split on whether the U.S. should then attack in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon: 49 percent oppose a U.S. attack and 47 percent would support it. Interestingly, only 45 percent of respondents think the U.S. can run a program of Soviet-style containment on a nuclear Iran. And, a majority of 55 percent of those who would oppose bombing Iran even as a last resort to prevent it from going nuclear think that Iran can be contained.

On a note of the specific direction of policy, a slim majority of respondents believe that if a robust system of international inspections were in places as an insurance policy, Iranians should be able to manufacture their own nuclear fuel for peaceful electricity-generating purposes.

These splits in opinion are surprising, considering the priority put on Iran’s program as a “‘critical threat.” Furthermore, Iran was tied with North Korea “at the bottom on the scale of ‘feelings’ toward other countries.” While Americans don’t ‘like’ Iran, they view it as less important a country  than they have in previous Chicago Council surveys. Although a majority thought Iran is either “somewhat” or “very” important, those numbers are down. Nearly two in five Americans think Iran is unimportant.

Finally,  it is important to consider the partisan divide when interpreting the survey’s findings. On the question of jumping into an Israeli-Iranian war started by Israel, “Majorities of Republicans support  … bringing U.S. forces into a war with Iran on the side of Israel prompted by Israeli strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities (52%).” Only a third of Democrats support that same proposition.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. “If Israel’s “right of existence” and “right to self-defense” is important, then Iran’s right of “peace and tranquility” is important, as well.” K. Ziabari

    Iran is not the threat to peace in the Middle East. Israel is and has been shown to the entire globe to be the aggressors and refusing peace. Finding any problems with Iran makes the US a laughingstock. It is not concealed that there is a government within the government of the United States. Dual citizenship politicians have a citizenship in the United States and Israel. There is no law against dual citizenship in the Constitution, but for what reason should they need this if they are in the US government? Make them chose between one or the other. Otherwise their loyalties lead toward Israel furthering the downward fall of this country. Stay out of the affairs of Iran.

  2. Nice to see the poll numbers turning around. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, fairly recent polling had a majority of Americans supporting military action to prevent Iran getting the bomb. Those who have labored to counter Israeli and neocon propaganda and enlighten the public — including this estimable site — are in part responsible for the turn in public opinion.

    Guess what? Iran is an unimportant country, at least as far as the American people are concerned. Why should we have to worry about a country 7,000 miles away, a relatively small nation with no pretensions to world power? Its geographic position and oil resources are important, but the only reason we need to worry about access to the oil is because we have become mixed up in the politics of the region. Thank you, Israel. Thank you, Israel lobby.

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