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Up in arms over Iran

George Bush offered three countries charter memberships in the Axis of Evil. Two of the three were on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. We invaded the third. Whoops.

One of the other two — Iran — would present a grave threat to the United States, our allies and the entire world if it obtained nuclear weapons, forever altering the balance of power. It is a threat recognized by Arab governments, by our allies and by the American people.

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Indeed, Americans are ready to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran.

While long recognizing the threat, voters resisted action, in part because of the atmosphere of cynicism and distrust President George W. Bush created in Iraq.

A quite loaded Fox question in 2006, citing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “defiant rhetoric,” nonetheless produced just 51 percent in favor of economic sanctions, while 39 percent favored continued diplomacy instead.

Support for military action against Iran during ’06 and ’07 depended a great deal on how the questions were phrased. As usual, multilateralism made some difference. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found Americans opposed by a four-point margin to military action to destroy Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. However, when asked if the U.S. should join a “coalition of countries” for the same purpose, voters favored it by six points.

Bush’s failures in Iraq contributed mightily to public resistance. In 2006, fully 40 percent told the Los Angeles Times the way Iraq had been handled made them less supportive of action against Iran.

In general, during this period, support for military action was mixed. An ABC/Washington Post poll concluded that Americans opposed bombing Iran’s nuclear sites by a 12-point margin.

Fox found 54 percent willing to support air strikes “if diplomacy failed,” and while a plurality opposed ground troops, 50 percent favored “whatever military force is necessary.”

Fox presupposed Americans’ preference for diplomacy. A whole series of surveys revealed overwhelming support for direct talks between the U.S. and Iran to settle the dispute. Support for economic sanctions also increased, so that now three-quarters and more favor that approach.

Though voters favored diplomacy, and then sanctions, they predict both would fail. Diplomacy has already proven inadequate to meet President Barack Obama’s deadline.

Sanctions are in the offing, but their effectiveness is uncertain at best. With a majority of Iranians supporting the acquisition of nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that internal political dynamics will produce the necessary results.

One wag offered a wry counterpoint, noting that sanctions are 100 percent effective at achieving their main goal — which is making those imposing them feel better.

The public, though, now clearly understands the threat — 80 percent believe Iran has nuclear weapons or will obtain them in the next few years — and almost every survey shows support for military action if other measures fail.

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For now, 63 percent are content to pursue diplomacy backed by sanctions, according to a February CNN poll. However, if those efforts don’t prevent the nuclearization of Iran, 59 percent endorse U.S. military action. That result is echoed in a series of other polls. Toward the end of last year, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Americans supporting military action “if Iran … is close to developing a nuclear weapon” by 15 points, a substantial change from the four-point opposition in the same poll four years ago. A CNN poll found Americans favoring military action by 54 percent-45, while Pew had 61 percent prioritizing preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means military action.

If President Obama decides military force is necessary against Iran, he will find a public willing to follow his leadership.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.