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WHat country to you consider to be the greatest enemy of the U.S.? Photo by Gallup
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Tiananmen Square in Beijing: Enemy #1 Photo by Reuters

Half as many Americans view Iran as the United States' greatest enemy today as did two years ago, according to a new Gallup poll released this week.

China now tops the list of the greatest U.S. enemy, edging Iran into second place and North Korea into third.

After the top three countries, come Russia (named by 9% of Americans,) Iraq (7%,) Afghanistan (5%) and Syria (3%.)

Gallup first asked this open-ended question in 2001, and opinions have shifted over that time. In the 2001 survey - 10 years after the Persian Gulf War but before the 2003 Iraq war began - Americans named Iraq as the greatest U.S. enemy by a large margin.

By 2005, with the U.S. nearly two years into the Iraq war, Iraq and North Korea tied as the greatest enemy, with 22% mentioning each country. The next year, Iran surged to the top of the list, with 31% of all mentions, and it remained the most often cited enemy until this year.

The drop of Iran as the greatest enemy in this year's poll has been accompanied by increases in respondents naming North Korea (from 10% in 2012 to 16%,) Russia (from 2% to 9%,) and Syria (from less than 1% to 3%). The number of respondents naming China, however, has stayed virtually the same.

Thus, China now tops the list, mainly because Americans' views on the nation's enemies are more divided among several countries rather than focused on one dominant country, as was the case in recent years.

Iran reached an agreement last November with several of the world's largest nations, including the U.S. to limit its nuclear activity. Those nations in return agreed to ease some of the sanctions on Iran. That agreement may be the main reason the American public is taking a less antagonistic view of Iran.

Importantly, although Americans are less likely to regard Iran as the greatest U.S. enemy, their basic opinions of Iran have improved only slightly this year, and remain overwhelmingly negative.

Americans in all major subgroups are less likely now than in 2012 to name Iran as the United States' greatest enemy. Groups that were among the most likely to view Iran as the top enemy, such as men, older Americans and college graduates, tend to show the greatest declines.

There are not major differences by subgroup in current perceptions of the greatest U.S. enemy. Older Americans and Republicans are a bit more likely than younger Americans and Democrats to name Iran as the top enemy. In turn, younger Americans and Democrats more commonly view North Korea as the No.1 enemy.

Americans in general view China much more positively than Iran, though on balance, still negatively. They may regard China's emerging economic power to be as threatening, if not more so, than the potential military threats from Iran and North Korea.

The poll was based on telephone interviews conducted in early February with a random sample of 1,023 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is some 4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.