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
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
(Inter Press Service)