Iran’s nuclear programme poses a significant threat beyond the Middle East with a majority of the British population fearing its effect, a poll for The National has shown.
The survey of British public opinion found that 54 per cent have concerns that Iran’s nuclear ambitions “represent a threat to the world”, including Britain.
Leading commentators told The National that the finding demonstrates the urgent need to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme, which is said to be months away from being able to create a nuclear bomb.
The nationwide survey on British views on foreign policy also had unexpected results on rising fears about Al Qaeda, a western re-intervention in Afghanistan and the justification of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
Other findings in the wide-ranging exclusive poll
- A majority (62 per cent) said that relations with the Arab world must be maintained or improved
- A majority (52 per cent) of the British public do not have confidence in Liz Truss to perform at the highest levels as a world leader
- A majority (56 per cent) said the UK had done enough to help Ukraine while 76 per cent backed the imposition of sanctions on Russia for its actions
- A majority (78 per cent) backed global action to address the Europe-wide energy crisis
- A majority (54 per cent) wanted the UN to lead efforts to resolve the Ukraine war
When asked which view most closely represented their own, in the poll of 2,096 adults, 13 per cent considered Iran a threat to “certain countries” but not Britain.
Only one in 10 of those surveyed considered that its nuclear ambitions did not present a threat along with 24 per cent who answered “don’t know”.
The result demonstrated that the British public were threatened by Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons but also “the complete failure of the international community to stop this from happening”, said Dr Alan Mendoza, director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.
“This is a case of the British public being observant and understanding that Iran is a threat that needs to be dealt with.”
He suggested there was also scepticism over whether a new nuclear agreement would be acceptable because Iran had “shown its willingness to cheat its way through the previous deal”.
“The new government should take note of this strong feeling of the British public and their desire to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and to help stop that from happening,” Dr Mendoza said.
He said that people had also been swayed by Iran’s “unsavoury actions”, such as hostage taking, most significantly of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Leading military analyst Prof Michael Clarke argued that the UK concerns were also driven by the “global instability” caused by a nuclear-armed Tehran regime “because it will stimulate proliferation in the Middle East, which is against UK interests”.
He said that the survey’s finding was important to the region. “The Gulf states have taken British policy more seriously in recent years, because it has been a bit more assertive. They see British foreign policy as a sensible variation of American policy, which flip-flopped during the Obama and then Trump administrations.”
The 54 per cent figure, he said, might suggest that Britain would support a pre-emptive strike by Israel or America. “If Iran conducted a nuclear weapon test and some sort of Israeli strike followed, then I think people would find that more acceptable than if a strike was preventative,” he said.
Dr Sanam Vakil, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, thought the concerns were the result of witnessing Iran’s accelerating nuclear programme.
This, along with the country's regional activities and detention of dual nationals such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe has “deeply impacted popular views on Iran”, she said.
Dr Vakil said that President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats had also added to the fears. “In the context of Ukraine and nuclear concerns there, it makes sense that people are more engaged and alarmed on geopolitical issues of significance.”
The survey should put greater pressure on Europe and America to find a negotiated solution with Iran to prevent it obtaining a bomb, she said
“Without a deal there will be risk for regional conflict and I don't think that the international community has the bandwidth for a second front that could be deeply destabilising at a time of global energy crisis,” Dr Vakil said.
Former Iran state hostage Ana Diamond agreed that the world was living in an age where such threats were “so palpable” that they fear it could “reach a point where Iran suddenly has a nuclear weapon”.
It was also “common sense” that no one wants “any country, especially a country like Iran that's been at odds with the western world for so long”, to have a nuclear weapon.
The National’s survey also found that almost three quarters believed the international terrorist group Al Qaeda was a present threat to the UK after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
While only 3 per cent saw the extremists as “no threat”, 11 per cent considered Al Qaeda a “significant threat” and 55 per cent believe it presents a danger to Britain.
Views were evenly balanced over the decision by America and Britain to withdraw from Afghanistan in August last year with 40 per cent in favour and 37 per cent saying it was the “wrong decision”.
But a similar split was found when the public was asked if they would support Britain sending its armed forces back into Afghanistan “to protect the rights of women and other human rights in the country”. It found 36 per cent supported the proposal with the same proportion opposing it.
British army officer Hamish de Breton Gordon said while he strongly supported women’s rights he was against another intervention.
“Having spent a good part of my military career in and out of Afghanistan, I realised what a difficult place it is,” he said.
He said he was also aware of “how difficult it is to make an impact” for foreign forces.
“Our diplomatic and political weight, humanitarian aid and finance are probably going to be more effective in helping women in Afghanistan than sending in British troops,” he said.
Nearly 20 years on from the American-led invasion, the survey asked if the public thought that the United States and Britain were right or wrong to take military action against Iraq in 2003.
After two decades of internal strife since the invasion, 42 per cent of those surveyed stated that it was wrong and 27 per cent believed that it was right.