Forget Greece; what would you do about Iran? Behind the 'Eurosis' that currently churns the news-cycle, foreign policy experts are divided and fearful about a lurking problem that could arguably displace the Euro as the most pressing Western headache of 2012.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that medium-level uranium enrichment is underway in northern Iran, while experts vary between months and years in worse-case predictions about when Tehran might have enough highly enriched uranium to produce a bomb. A continued approach of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions could fail to derail Iran's nuclear programme, leaving us with various scare-scenarios, including a more aggressive Iranian leadership, the diffusion of materials to allied non-state actors and a panicky Israeli defence establishment itching for pre-emptive strikes. Alternatively, overt military measures against Iranian facilities could send oil prices through the roof and the global economy into recession, while Western and Israeli interests become targets for Iranian proxy-groups in an arc from the Eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan. Even then, the tough option might yield little effect against a nuclear programme likely fortified in mind of lessons learnt from events over the border in 1981, when Israeli F-16s flattened Saddam Hussein's burgeoning nuclear capacity at the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad.
Perhaps it's unsurprising, therefore, that Iran's nuclear programme is being hampered by a steady tempo of covert vandalism, offering a limited and 'anonymous' helping-hand to economic sanctions with the assassination of nuclear scientists, complex cyber-attacks (e.g. the 'Stuxnet' computer virus) plus mysterious explosions and 'accidents' at Iranian military bases.
By definition, public opinion is little consulted on a government's covert activities. Accordingly, YouGov asked respondents to what extent, if at all, they would support various measures - both covert and overt - to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In early February 2012, YouGov conducted a cross-country study of attitudes to the Iran question in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The poll was conducted using a nationally representative sample of British, German, Danish and US adults, and the Middle Eastern poll was conducted using a representative sample of adults from North Africa, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Levant.
As results show: significant majorities in the US (64%), Britain (70%), Germany (74%) and Denmark (76%) believe Iran is enriching uranium "probably to build a nuclear weapon as well". In comparison, a much smaller majority of those in the Middle East (53%) say the same.
All countries show significantly greater support for increased sanctions over the application of force. In Britain's case, for instance, 70% of people support increased sanctions, while 14% support assassinating scientists working in Iran's nuclear programme, 15% support assassinating senior political figures in Iran, 23% support bombing Iran's nuclear installations and 12% support launching a ground invasion.
However, results also indicate interesting regional differences in attitude:
Americans are significantly more likely to support aggressive measures against Iran than those in either Europe or the Middle East.
- 44% of Americans support bombing Iran's nuclear installations, versus 18% in Germany, 23% in Britain and 20% in the Middle East.
- 30% of Americans support assassinating senior political figures in Iran, versus 13% in Germany, 15% in Britain and 14% in the Middle East.
- 26% of Americans support assassinating scientists working in Iran's nuclear programme, versus 9% in Germany, 14% in Britain and 12% in the Middle East.
- 22% of Americans support launching a ground invasion, involving troops from their own country, versus 18% in Germany, 12% in Britain and 14% in the Middle East.
In fact, European and Middle Eastern opinion-trends remain broadly similar on the Iran question in most cases. Within this demographic, Germany usually reflects the smallest appetite for taking action against Iran.
In two instances, Middle Eastern opinion differs significantly from both European and American trends.
- Only 44% of respondents in the Middle East support increased economic sanctions against Iran, in comparison with 70% in the United States, 74% in both Germany and Denmark, and 70% in Britain.
- Similarly, just 30% of Middle Eastern respondents support the application of cyber warfare to undermine Iran's nuclear research, in comparison with 56% in the United States, 46% in Germany, 44% in Denmark and 42% in Britain.
These differences likely indicate greater reluctance among those with borders nearby to support 'softer' measures that might impact on the economic health of the region as a whole.
It should also be noted that in each case, support is notably higher in Denmark than other parts of Europe, where 37% of Danish people support bombing Iran's nuclear installations versus 18% in Germany and 23% in Britain; 22% of Danes support assassinating senior political figures in Iran versus 13% in Germany and 15% in Britain; 17% support assassinating scientists working in Iran's nuclear programme versus 9% in Germany and 14% in Britain; 27% support launching a ground invasion, involving troops from their own country. Incidentally, this is also the one occasion where a European country shows (marginally) higher support for action than Americans (22%).
Focusing on Britain, survey results remind us that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat halves of the current Coalition Government are unusual bedfellows in key areas of foreign policy.
Beyond the act of increasing economic sanctions, which enjoys broad majority support from all three parties (CON: 87%/ LAB: 68% LIB DEM: 76%), conservative voters are significantly more likely to support tougher measures against Iran than their coalition partners. Labour support, meanwhile, sits varyingly in the middle in most cases.
- Where 20% of Conservatives support assassinating scientists working in Iran's nuclear programme, a smaller 6% of Lib Dem supporters and 12% of Labour supporters say the same.
- 35% of Conservatives support bombing Iran's nuclear installations, while 17% of Lib Dems and 21% of Labour supporters say the same.
- 22% of Conservatives support assassinating senior political figures in Iran, versus 10% of Lib Dems and 11% of Labour supporters.
- 15% of Conservatives support launching a ground invasion, involving Britain's troops, versus 3% of Lib Dems and 11% of Labour supporters.
- 53% of Conservatives support cyber warfare to undermine Iran's research, versus 43% of Lib Dems and 39% of Labour supporters. (This is the one occasion where more Lib Dems than Labour support activism)
Commenting on the UK results as guest-experts at London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Andrew Somerville and Andrea Berger observed that British people showed a clear preference for both sanctions and cyber warfare over more violent or direct policy options. Of the military options, they added, "the most palatable option appears to be the strategic bombing of Iran's nuclear installations, gaining more support and weaker opposition than either targeted assassinations or a ground-based invasion that evokes memories of Iraq. However, with public opinion buoyed by the recent successes in Libya, there are questions over whether the public would also support the other ramifications of this type of action. Air strikes on targeted nuclear installations are unlikely to be limited to those installations alone. It is likely that suppression of air assets and air-defence installations would also be necessary to ensure the success of such a mission, which may not be as supported as the direct strikes themselves".
(Fieldwork was conducted 27 Jan-2 Feb, 2012 using a nationally representative sample of British, German, Danish and US adults, and the Middle Eastern poll was conducted using a representative sample of adults from North Africa, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Levant.)