Global Public Opinion Turns Against the U.S. on Iran's Nuclear Program

Even among close allies, the mood is shifting in a way that weakens Washington's diplomatic leverage.

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Iranian Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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For months, diplomats and analysts have been suggesting that the Bush administration-led effort to pressure and isolate Iran over its nuclear defiance was losing steam. Now, with the release Tuesday of a BBC World Service Poll, there are some hard indications that indeed—at least in terms of global public opinion—that has been happening.

The new survey has charted what, for the Bush team and its allies overseas, must be an alarming drop in support for economic sanctions or military strikes on Iran, which despite the passage of a third United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution last week is still refusing to suspend its nuclear work. Compared with a June 2006 BBC poll, backing for a tougher approach to Iran fell in 13 of 21 countries where people were questioned both times.

Even in a staunch ally like Britain, support for those measures fell 9 percentage points, from 43 percent to 34 percent. In Australia, the share dropped 10 points and in Germany 9 points. Even in the United States, the figure dropped from 66 percent to 60 percent over that period.

In all, people in 31 countries were questioned about their opinions on dealing with the long-running diplomatic stalemate over Iran; in most, pluralities favored relying on diplomatic tactics only, or even applying no pressure at all.

Most of the interviews, according to the BBC World Service, were conducted after the release last December of a public version of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that concluded—to the dismay of many in the Bush administration—that Tehran very likely had halted its efforts to learn how to fashion nuclear fuel into a working bomb or warhead. That finding was hotly disputed by some critics, and, in retrospect, even U.S. intelligence officials conceded that the NIE had placed too much emphasis on the weaponization question and not enough on the more central task of mastering the production of nuclear fuel—something Iran is attempting to do at a growing uranium enrichment facility that is envisioned as holding more than 50,000 centrifuge machines. Iran says the effort is aimed at producing fuel for nuclear power plants, not for weapons.

Some European and U.S. officials have said on background that the NIE seriously damaged efforts to increase pressure on Iran by seeming to suggest that the danger had passed.

At the same time, oil-laden Iran has been buoyed by oil prices of about $100 a barrel, the removal of former enemies in Baghdad and Kabul, and growing influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The sense that global public opinion is also moving toward accommodation with a rising Iran may well feed Tehran's sense that it can sustain its defiance on the nuclear front.

That sort of mood goes to the top of Iran's theocratic system, as Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes in a new booklet on the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Says Sadjadpour, "At the moment, he really thinks the tide of history is on his side."

Iranian policy figures, adds Afshin Molavi, an analyst with the New America Foundation in Washington, like to play off an expression favored by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She talks of U.S. support for an emerging "new Middle East" that includes political forces moving the region in the direction of moderation, democracy, and opposition to radical movements linked to Iran. "They say there will be a new Middle East," Molavi reports, "but it will be shaped more by Iran than by you."