US, Iranian Publics Not So Different

The people of Iran and the United States share many of the same hopes and fears about global problems but remain deeply distrustful of each other’s government, according to a major survey of public opinion in both countries released here Wednesday.

As speculation mounts about a possible military confrontation between the two nations over US allegations that Tehran is building a nuclear weapon and interfering in neighboring Iraq, the poll found a high degree of mutual suspicion and hostility, but also a surprising number of common concerns.

"The polls show that majorities in both countries are deeply suspicious of each other, but nonetheless agree on a wide range of issues," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which carried out the poll along with a non-governmental group, Search for Common Ground.

Strong majorities in both countries share a strong dislike for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, consider international terrorism a "critical threat," believe that the war in Iraq has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks worldwide, and consider democratic governance to be "absolutely important" to them personally, according to the survey.

Strong and similar majorities in both countries gave their respective governments generally positive assessments of their compliance with democratic ideals and human rights. While US respondents gave their government a slightly higher rating on democratic governance, their Iranian counterparts were somewhat more positive about the degree to which human rights are respected in their country.

The poll also found strong support in both countries for the United Nations and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as indications that an agreement whereby Iran could enrich uranium at low levels subject to strict international verification would be broadly acceptable to US public opinion.

Nonetheless, about half of respondents in both countries said it is either "somewhat" or "very likely" that the US will take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities "in the next year or two."

That finding underscored the suspicion and hostility that underlies their relationship, although US respondents appeared substantially more willing to engage Tehran.

Although Iranian respondents were roughly evenly split between mainly positive and negative impressions of the US people, 93 percent said they felt negatively about the current US government. Conversely, 78 percent of the US respondents said they had a negative impression of the current government in Tehran, while 59 percent felt the same way about the Iranian people.

Still, four of five US respondents said they favored direct talks between the two countries, and two out of three said they favored increased trade and more people-to-people exchanges. Iranians, on the other hand, were somewhat more reticent. Just over half favored increased trade while large pluralities of close to half said there should be direct talks and more exchanges.

The Iranian component of the survey, which featured face-to-face interviews on 134 detailed substantive questions with 1,000 respondents located throughout the country both in urban and rural areas, was carried out between Oct. 31 and Dec. 6.

That was before the latest rise in bilateral tensions sparked by the detention by the US military of Iranian officials in Iraq in mid-December and again on Jan. 10, just hours before President George W. Bush himself charged that Tehran was providing "material support for attacks on American troops" in Iraq and vowed to "seek out and destroy the networks" that were allegedly doing so.

At the same time, he announced the deployment of a second aircraft carrier group to the Gulf in what many observers here and in the region interpreted as the latest escalation in the growing confrontation between the two nations. Senior US officials have since depicted Iran as the leading threat among a farrago of "extremist" and "radical" forces in the Middle East that include Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas and al-Qaeda.

Indeed, in a reference to Iran in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Bush lumped Iran together with al-Qaeda in asserting that "the Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat."

Bush himself, according to the survey, was viewed more negatively than any other world leader cited in the survey. No less than 86 percent of Iranian respondents said they had a "very unfavorable" opinion of the US president, compared to 71 percent and 48 percent who held the same opinion of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, respectively.

Similarly, three out of four Iranian respondents said they felt that US influence on the world was mainly negative, exceeded only by the 83 percent who described Israel in the same way. Sixty percent said the same about Britain, while pluralities said the influence of Russia, France and Europe were "mainly positive."

As evidence that Iran is increasingly looking eastward for friends, three out of five Iranian respondents described the influence of India and Japan and the rise of China to great-power economic status as "mainly positive."

The Iran component of the survey also found little basis for the Bush administration’s depiction of Iran – or at least its public opinion – as a force for extremism or a "totalitarian threat." Nearly two-thirds of Iranian respondents said they considered economic globalization to be good for their country (compared to 60 of US respondents), and nearly 60 percent said they considered global companies to exert a "mainly positive" influence on the world (compared to 49 percent of US respondents).

Less than a quarter (24 percent) of Iranians said they believed Western and Islamic culture were "incompatible with each other" (compared to 36 percent of US respondents), as opposed to 54 percent of Iranians (56 percent of Americans) who said they agreed with the statement that the two cultures could find "common ground."

Iranians were also more likely to reject terrorist attacks against civilians, although a modest majority appeared to make an exception for Palestinian attacks against Israelis under some circumstances. Eighty percent of Iranians said terrorist attacks against civilians can "never" be justified, compared to 46 percent of US citizens who took the same position.

Iranians also voiced strong support for the UN Security Council despite its recent resolutions against Tehran on the nuclear issue. Seventy percent said the UN should become "significantly more powerful in world affairs," compared to 66 percent of US respondents who agreed.

"The numbers we see here don’t confirm the image of Iranians being swept up in a revolutionary Islamic framework," Kull told IPS. "There’s strong support for the multilateral system and the NPT regime, they have positive feelings toward Europe, and there’s a lot of data that suggests that they’re a lot more integrated with the world as a whole."

On nuclear issues, 84 percent of Iranians support the government’s effort to enrich uranium, and majorities and large pluralities reject a list of incentives, such as a US non-aggression guarantee, to persuade Tehran to abandon the program.

At the same time, two-thirds of Iranians support their country’s continued participation in the NPT, even when reminded that it would ban Tehran from building nuclear weapons. Only 15 percent said they believe Iran should withdraw from the treaty.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.