WASHINGTON — Despite persistent disillusionment with the war in Iraq, a majority of Americans supports taking military action against Iran if that country continues to produce material that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
The poll, conducted Sunday through Wednesday, found that 57% of Americans favor military intervention if Iran's Islamic government pursues a program that could enable it to build nuclear arms.
Support for military action against Tehran has increased over the last year, the poll found, even though public sentiment is running against the war in neighboring Iraq: 53% said they believe the situation there was not worth going to war.
The poll results suggest that the difficulties the United States has encountered in Iraq have not turned the public against the possibility of military actions elsewhere in the Middle East.
Support for a potential military confrontation with Iran was strongest among Republican respondents, among whom 76% endorsed the idea. But even among Democrats, who overwhelmingly oppose the war in Iraq, 49% supported such action.
In follow-up interviews, some respondents said they believed Iran posed a more serious threat than Saddam Hussein's Iraq did.
"I really don't think Saddam had anything to do with terrorism, but Iran, I believe, does," said Edward Wtulich, of Goshen, N.Y. He was among the 1,555 adults who participated in this week's survey, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. "Iran has been a problem, I think, for years," Wtulich said, "and we've known about it."
Wtulich, a registered Democrat and retired manager for the New York City Housing Authority, said he supported taking a hard line with Iran despite the strain of the Iraq war on the U.S. military.
"It makes me scared," he said, "but we may not have a choice."
Experts said the public's views on Iran appeared to have hardened in part because of the more aggressive anti-Western posture of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Elected last year, he has riled the international community with remarks denying the Holocaust and with declarations that Iran will defy European and U.S. pressure and continue to pursue efforts to enrich uranium.
His comments have fostered an impression of him as "very reckless, a real rogue, as opposed to simply a populist," said political science professor John Mueller of Ohio State University, who is an authority on wartime public opinion.
Mueller said that Americans' rising support for confronting Iran was "impressive," especially considering their misgivings about the war in Iraq, and that their support suggested "concerns about the new president." But he added that poll respondents are often more inclined to voice support for military intervention when the question is framed broadly and the potential for casualties is unclear.
"You always get higher support for things like 'military action,' because that could just mean bombing, as opposed to sending troops or going to war," Mueller said.
Poll respondents expressed a strong preference for the United States working with allies to fight international law violations or global aggression.
Iran has insisted its nuclear program is solely for energy production. But the United States and other Western governments suspect Iran's program is aimed at developing weapons.
European nations that have negotiated with Iran over its program want the matter referred to the United Nations Security Council. Iran has indicated it might be open to a compromise in which Russia would provide enriched uranium to Iran, for use exclusively in energy reactors.
The American public's position on Iran appears to have hardened over the last year, a period marked by an increasing international focus on Iran's nuclear program. When a similar question was asked in a Times poll last January, 50% favored military action against Iran.
Regarding Iraq, the latest poll shows that although most Americans remain disenchanted with the war, opinions have stabilized, at least for now. The percentage saying they believe the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war over dipped slightly, to 53%, compared with 56% in a survey a year earlier.
When asked who was winning the war in Iraq, 33% said the United States, 7% said the insurgents, and 55% said neither side was winning.
Americans remain divided over how long U.S. forces should stay in Iraq: 40% believe the United States should remain in Iraq for "as long as it takes," 36% want U.S. troops withdrawn within a year, and 14% support immediate withdrawal.
Respondents were also divided, largely along party lines, over whether the Iraq war is really part of Washington's war on terrorism; 51% say it is, 46% say it is not. President Bush has repeatedly cast Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism. But many of his administration's prewar claims about Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda have turned out to have been overstated or based on unreliable intelligence sources.
The poll also found that 32% of Americans believed that terrorism around the world had increased because of the Iraq situation, 17% believed it had decreased, and 47% believed the problem was about the same.