Americans and Israelis Don't See Eye to Eye on Iran

When it comes to the nuclear threat from Tehran, there’s a growing gulf between Washington and Jerusalem.

As negotiators convene in Geneva in an effort to reach agreement on curbing Iran's nuclear program, the American people are supportive of a deal, even though they are fairly cynical about the likelihood of it working. And their support may put them at odds with the Israelis, their long-time regional allies, portending possible further disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington in the months ahead.

Moreover, Americans are divided along partisan lines on the way forward with Iran. Younger Americans are even more likely to differ with Israelis about Iran, suggesting disagreements over Tehran's nuclear program may be with us for some time to come.

Americans back an interim accord with Tehran that would impede the Iranian nuclear program and set the stage for a final deal that may even roll back that program. A strong majority (64 percent) say the United States and other countries should lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Tehran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey. But roughly six in ten Americans (61 percent) also have little or no confidence that such an agreement would actually prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the nature of partisanship today, Republicans and Democrats are split over a prospective Iranian deal: 72 percent of Democrats support such an accord, while only 57 percent of Republicans agree. And 70 percent of Republicans compared with 50 percent of Democrats lack confidence that this agreement would keep Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a deal in Geneva has generated new friction between Israel and the United States. The Obama administration wants to prevent the Iranians from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. The Israeli government wants to prevent Iran from ever having the ability to build such weapons. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing Washington not to finalize the deal now on the table in Geneva.

American-Israeli differences at an official level in part mirror disagreement between their respective publics. Three-quarters of Israelis have a very unfavorable view of Iran, while only 42 percent of Americans share such strong negative sentiments, according to a Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013. The next generation of Americans, those currently between the ages of 18 and 29, are even less likely to see Tehran in a negative light. Just 25 percent have a very unfavorable opinion of Iran. (And that's before the election of President Hassan Rouhani and his public softening to the West.)

There's also a critical difference between the United States and Jerusalem when it comes to the immediacy of the nuclear threat from Tehran. While 85 percent of Israelis say that Iran's nuclear program poses a major threat to Israel, only 54 percent of Americans worry that Tehran's nuclear activities pose a major threat to the United States, including only 42 percent of the younger generation of Americans.

Nevertheless, Americans (93 percent) and Israelis (96 percent) do agree that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. And, of the vast majority of both populations that oppose Tehran's nuclear ambitions, 68 percent of Israelis and 64 percent of Americans would support the use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

An Iran agreement eluded negotiators in Geneva in early November, and there is no assurance an interim accord can be concluded in the round of talks going on now. But if a deal is struck, the American public appears willing to back it, even if they aren't so sure an effective permanent deal is in the offing. Americans differences with Israelis, however, suggest that discord between Jerusalem and Washington over Iran may persist.


The Pulse

Trading Privacy for Security

Americans are still willing to forgive the NSA's intrusions, but are U.S. friends abroad?

The American people believe that the National Security Agency may have gone too far in spying on U.S. allies. They also think that the NSA has intruded on Americans' personal privacy in scooping up massive amounts of private phone calls and emails. But don't expect to see citizens taking to the streets. In fact, in the pursuit of terrorists, a majority will still trade privacy for security. And while it's pretty clear the NSA is watching, it's unclear to what extent Americans care.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans thought it unacceptable for the United States to monitor the phone calls of the leaders of allied nations, including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. Just 36 percent thought it acceptable. But then again, just 22 percent said they were following this story very closely.

Americans are, however, wary of the NSA's possible invasion of their own privacy. In a mid-July Washington Post-ABC News survey, nearly half (49 percent) said they thought that the NSA's surveillance program intruded on their personal privacy rights. And 74 percent said it infringed on some Americans' privacy, if not their own. Drilling down further, men were more worried than women about their personal data, younger people more than older people, Independents more than Democrats and Republicans, and the most worried (56 percent) were those with a college education.

Nevertheless, when asked to balance security worries against privacy concerns, Americans continue to opt for security. In that same Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57 percent felt that it was important for the federal government to investigate terrorist threats, even if it intrudes on personal privacy. Just 39 percent said that the government should not intrude on personal privacy, even if it limits the ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. Again, women much more than men were willing to sacrifice privacy for security, and the old much more than the young.

But what about America's image abroad? The U.S. government's respect for individual liberty has long been a strong suit of American public diplomacy. Even in many nations where opposition to U.S. foreign policy is widespread and where overall ratings for the United States are low, majorities or pluralities have believed that individual rights are respected in America.

In 2013, before many of the revelations about the NSA activity had been published, the Pew Research Center asked people in 39 nations if they thought the United States government respected the personal freedoms of its people. A median of 70 percent said it did, including majorities or pluralities in 37 of 39 nations. In contrast, a median of only 36 percent said this about China.

In that survey, America's reputation as a stalwart defender of civil liberties was particularly strong in Italy (82 percent), Germany (81 percent), France (80 percent), and Spain (69 percent). This would have come as good news to policymakers in Washington. Positive views of Uncle Sam's record had risen 20 points in Spain, 15 points in France, and 11 points in Germany since the dark days of 2008. But today, these are all countries where the public outcry against the NSA spying has been loudest.

So Americans are of two minds about recent allegations of NSA surveillance of phone and email communications. They worry about its impact on international relations and their own privacy. But that concern continues to be trumped by their ongoing anxiety about terrorism. How all this plays out overseas, especially in Europe, where until recently the United States was seen as a protector of civil liberties, is an open question. But tidings don't look good.

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