WASHINGTON — Americans are divided over the prospect of U.S. military action against Iran if the government in Tehran continues to pursue nuclear technology -- and a majority do not trust President Bush to make the "right decision" on that issue, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
Asked whether they would support military action if Iran continued to produce material that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, 48% of the poll's respondents, or almost half, said yes; 40% said no.
If Bush were to order military action, most respondents said they would support airstrikes against Iranian targets, and about one in four said they would support the use of American ground troops in Iran.
The findings of the poll, conducted largely before the Tehran government announced Monday that it had enriched uranium for civilian energy generation, reflected public concern about Iran's acquisition of nuclear technology -- but public division over the best U.S. response.
A majority of respondents, 61%, said they believed that Iran would eventually get nuclear weapons. Fifteen percent said they believed that Iran would be prevented from developing nuclear weapons through diplomatic negotiations, and 12% said they thought Iran would be stopped through military action.
Iran says it is not seeking nuclear weapons, but Western governments say they do not believe the Tehran government's denials.
Slip in the public's trust
In a telling reflection of Bush's erosion in public support, 54% said they did not trust him to "make the right decision about whether we should go to war with Iran," while 42% of respondents said they trusted him to do so.
That was a reversal of public sentiment since 2003, on the eve of Bush's decision to invade Iraq, when 55% of respondents said they trusted him to make the right decision over whether to go to war.
The poll results and interviews with individual respondents made it clear that the experience of Iraq -- both the discovery that U.S. intelligence was wrong to declare that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the costly continuing conflict against Iraqi insurgents -- have persuaded many Americans to be cautious about going to war against neighboring Iran.
"I think our intelligence really stinks," said Marilyn Wisniewski, 65, of Crestwood, Ill. She said she initially supported the war in Iraq, but was unsure of the proper course in Iran.
"How do we know what they have?" she asked. "We can't trust [the Iranians]. We have to protect ourselves. But how are we going to do that? I wouldn't send troops in there. I suppose I might support airstrikes."
Others echoed her sentiments. "You can't make the same mistake twice," said Gene Gentrup, 42, of Liberty, Mo. "Don't tell me they have WMD if they're saying they don't.... We have damaged our credibility on that in Iraq.
"If we do anything in Iran, it's important that we do it with support from other countries," he added.
The poll contacted 1,357 adults nationwide by telephone Saturday through Tuesday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the entire sample.
Americans' support for military action against Iran has fluctuated in recent years. In a Times/Bloomberg poll in January, 57% said they would support military action if Iran continued to produce material that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. But in a Fox News poll in January 2005, 41% of respondents said they believed the United States should "take military action to keep Iran from ... trying to develop a nuclear weapons program."
In this month's Times/Bloomberg poll, when respondents were asked what kind of military action against Iran they would support if President Bush chose to act, 44% said they would support airstrikes but oppose the use of ground troops; 19% said they would support both airstrikes and ground troops; and 6% said they would support the use of ground troops alone.
The Iraq factor
The poll found that two in five Americans, or 40%, said the war in Iraq had made them less supportive of military action against Iran; about the same proportion, 38%, said the experience of Iraq had no influence on their views of Iran. By a ratio of more than 3-to-1, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say that Iraq had made them less supportive of action in Iran.
On Iraq, the poll found that Americans had become markedly more pessimistic about the chances of success in the war since the beginning of this year.
About one in four respondents, or 23%, said they expected the situation in Iraq to "get better" over the coming year. In the Times/Bloomberg poll conducted in January, 34% said they expected the situation to improve.
Most of that decline in overall confidence came from respondents who described themselves as Democrats; 6% in this month's poll said they expected things to improve over the coming year, down from 24% in January. But Republicans' optimism also dropped, to 44% this month from 55% in January.