Andy GrottoBBC Poll on Iran Nukes

The headline from the press release of a new BBC World Service poll reads Declining Support for Tough Measures against Iran’s Nuclear Program: Global Poll. This poll is flawed and should be interpreted with caution.

First, some background. The poll surveyed 32,000 adults in 31 countries. The poll was conducted during the three month period between October 31, 2007 and January 25, 2008, so it is not so much a snapshot in time as it is a series of snapshots in different countries at different times. A similar poll of 21,000 adults in 21 countries was conducted in 2006, which the pollsters use as the baseline for comparison. Error margins in the new poll range from +/- 2.4 to 4.4 per cent, depending on the country.

Here’s the question that generated the headline:

The United Nations Security Council has asked Iran to not produce nuclear fuel. If Iran continues to produce nuclear fuel, which one of the following do you think the United Nations Security Council should do?

01 Not pressure Iran
02 Use only diplomatic efforts
03 Impose economic sanctions on Iran
04 Authorize a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities

Wow, where do I begin.

1. Since when are diplomacy and sanctions mutually exclusive? The poll implies that they are; respondents can pick one or the other, but not both. Sanctions are a tool of diplomacy, not an alternative to it.

The press release claims “support for tough measures against Iran’s nuclear program has fallen in 13 out of 21 countries.” The emphasis is mine — the poll defines tough as sanctions and military action. By implication, diplomacy is weak. That’s just plain silly.

2. Most of the respondents think Iran’s nuclear program is a problem. An alternative interpretation of the poll results is that more than 75% of respondents recognize that Iran’s enrichment program is a problem: 43% of respondents support diplomacy, 26% support sanctions, and 8% support military action. That’s about as close to a consensus as you’re likely to find in international security affairs.

3. The fall in support for “tough measures” in many countries is within or very close to the error terms, which ought to sound a further note of caution about the poll results. It would be helpful if the pollsters released error margins for each country so the findings could be peer reviewed more closely.

4. The question is poorly framed. The UNSC did not “ask” Iran to not produce nuclear fuel; it demanded it under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Chapter VII resolutions create binding international legal obligations, and Iran’s failure to abide by the UNSC’s demand means that it is in violation of the UN Charter.

The question should have read something like:

The United Nations Security Council has issued a binding international legal obligation to Iran demanding that it not produce nuclear fuel. If Iran continues to produce nuclear fuel, which one of the following do you think the United Nations Security Council should do?


Iran has refused to comply with a binding UN Security Council resolution demanding that it suspend nuclear production. If Iran continues to produce nuclear fuel, which one of the following do you think the United Nations Security Council should do?

“Ask” implies that Iran has a choice whether to comply; it does not. I strongly suspect that if the pollsters had framed the question more accurately, there would be even greater support for not letting Iran off the hook for violating a binding UNSC resolution.


  1. FSB

    You are correct.

    Iran should leave the NPT so that it can have as free a hand as Israel to make (or should I say steal?) nukes galore.

  2. KMB

    FSB – Leaving the NPT now doesn’t negate the UNSCRs that have been passed and remain legally binding. Though the Security Council is ultimately the enforcer of the NPT, it maintains its authority under the UN Charter, i.e. independent of the NPT. The UNSCRs remain legally binding regardless of what Iran decides to do w/r to the NPT. In fact, Article 51 would allow threatened states to act alone of in concert until such time as the Security Council takes action — particularly during the 90 days window required between notification and actual withdrawal. Even then, all activity that contradicts Iran’s NPT commitment during its tenure as a party to the Treaty would be subject to legal action. So withdrawing from the NPT will not give Iran a “free hand.”

  3. Bill

    For starters, since when are diplomacy and sanctions mutually exclusive? The poll implies that they are;

    Not really. It splits “diplomacy only” from “economic sanctions.” Nothing says you can’t use economic sanctions AND diplomacy in the second option. But I think most people can grasp that if you are using punitive economic measures, diplomacy has failed (unless diplomacy means “I’ll stop hurting you once you give me what I want”).

  4. Andy (History)

    Well, the question on this poll is obviously misleading. For everyone’s edification, here’s what the UNSC is “asking”:

    2. Decides, in this context, that Iran shall without further delay suspend the following proliferation sensitive nuclear activities:
    (a) all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA; and
    (b) work on all heavy water-related projects, including the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water, also to be verified by the IAEA;

    “Suspend” is a critical word here because it explicitly implies that the measure is temporary. Additionally, since Iran is not currently producing nuclear fuel, it’s pretty silly to suggest that’s what the UNSC resolution does – which is exactly what the question implies.

  5. James (History)


    For what it’s worth, I thought this was an excellent post.

  6. FSB

    KMB, right you are.

    Perhaps Iran should claim that their nuclear fuel cycle work is proprietary like Brazil’s

    How about a blog post on Brazil’s military’s involvement with their nuclear program

    It may involve actual research, but would actually be fun to read instead of the same old re-hashed wonkish hand-wringing about Iran.

  7. erichwwk (History)

    Can someone kindly explain to me whether or not the US rep. to the UNSC is bound to vote in a way consistent with agreements the US has made (in the NPT) that “become the supreme Law of the Land?

    Bu signing the NPT has not the US (and all its agents?) agreed to honor the Article IV of the NPT as to “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty”.

    Is not the US rep to the UNSC bound to vote in a way consistent with Article VI of the US Constitution?

    How is this conflict between the UNSC resolution and the NPT handled in the other UNSC permanent members, who seem to also be voting contrary to what they agreed to in Article IV of the NPT?

  8. erichwwk (History)

    One more question. Does anyone really believe the 32,000 adults in 31 countries are sufficiently informed on the issues to make their responses particularly meaningful?

    What exactly is one measuring when one asks questions of the ignorant?

  9. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    The US can vote any way it would like in the Security Council.

    As a practical matter, the United States always asserts that its actions are consistent with its interpretation of Articles IV and VI.