February 3, 2020 | By Eliza Posner

Growing American Support for Military Approaches to Iran’s Nuclear Program

In the wake of the US airstrike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory strikes that injured dozens of US troops, the percentage of Americans who say Iran poses the greatest threat to US security has increased sharply, rising from 10 percent in 2019 to 34 percent in January 2020. Experts have warned that the US strike on Soleimani could increase Iran’s regional power, especially in Iraq, where the killing could strengthen Iran’s relationship with Iraqi Shiite militia leaders. 51 percent of Americans say that Iran’s influence in the Middle East is a critical threat to the United States.

However, as the Council’s latest polling shows, more Americans are concerned about Iran’s nuclear program (61% list it as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States) than Iranian influence in the Middle East (50% critical threat). The strike against Soleimani, and the escalated tensions between the two countries, not only raised Iran’s threat profile among Americans, but has increased their support for offensive actions against the country should it pursue nuclear weapons.

If Iran restarts development toward a nuclear weapon, a minority (23%) of Americans supports accepting that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. Large majorities of Americans support continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium (85%) and imposing tighter economic sanctions on Iran (77%). A smaller majority (66%) supports rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement.

Most Americans support cyberattacks against Iran’s computer systems (65%, up from 52% in 2019) and airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities (56%, up from 48% in 2019) if Iran restarts development towards a nuclear weapon. The percentage of Americans who support sending US troops to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities has also increased from 40 percent in 2019 to 44 percent.[1] In addition, in 2019, 70 percent of Americans favored the use of US troops to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

While more Americans still support nonmilitary approaches towards Iran, American support for military actions has grown, perhaps reflecting the increased number of Americans who today view Iran as the United States’ greatest security threat.

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[1] The wording of this question has changed slightly. In 2019, Q240A was phrased, “If Iran withdraws from the nuclear agreement with the remaining countries—the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China—and restarts development towards a nuclear weapon, would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the U.S. taking each of the following actions.” In January 2020 Q240 was phrased, “If Iran restarts development towards a nuclear weapon, would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the U.S. taking each of the following actions.”

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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