Since we run our own tracking of Iran polls, we pretty much know what they say about American public opinion as it relates to policy options on Iran (you can see our Iran Trend tracker here). To sum it up very briefly: Americans do not want Iran to become a nuclear power; they want to prevent such scenario from happening.
When presented with various options for halting Iran’s nuclear program, they’d choose the less violent option (diplomacy, sanctions) over attacking Iran. That’s quite reasonable. However, when Americans are presented with only two options – learning to live with a nuclearized Iran or attacking it to prevent this from happening, they tend to support an attack (but not as consistently).
Three days ago, the Council on Foreign Relation has released its updated report on Public Opinion on Global Issues, a report that includes a chapter on Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program. Here’s what this chapter says – a conclusion that is almost identical to ours:
A large majority of Americans believe that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, rather than limiting itself to energy production, and there is substantial concern over this. There is widespread pessimism that a nuclear armed Iran would be deterred by the threat of retaliation. Nonetheless, presented a menu of options, few endorse a military option while majorities favor either diplomatic options or sanctions. Majorities express pessimism about the likely effectiveness of a military strike. Diplomatic efforts to engage Iran are supported by majorities. However, questions that present a choice between a military option and inaction, imply that a military strike would be effective in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon (a controversial assumption), or pose a hypothetical scenario in which Iran is clearly on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, elicit support for military action among about half of respondents or modest majorities.
The interpretive CFR tone, though, is a bit different from ours. Look at the manner and the language Stewart Patrick of CFR employs as he describes the report’s findings to CFR and The Atlantic readers:
Amidst the heightened cacophony of policymakers and pundits, there remains strong public support in the United States—and in many countries abroad—for sanctions, but widespread opposition to the use of military force.
Patrick also provides the readers with a link to a graph of polls – a graph that includes only the results of the polls that reflect his ultimate argument:
Reading through his article I was struggling to find a word of explanation that could put these findings in context – but all I found was this:
American support for military force rises if depicted as a last resort. In 2011, the German Marshall Fund (GMF) presented U.S. and European citizens with two options: take “military action against Iran” or “simply accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.” Faced with this scenario, 49 percent of Americans and 42 percent of Europeans favored the use of military force. (This question assumed, somewhat problematically, that military force would necessarily achieve the goal of dismantling the Iranian nuclear program.)
I’m sorry, but this is a manipulative way of presenting the findings. The author emphasizes the fact that presented with an option of diplomatic prevention, most Americans would prefer it to military action (and why wouldn’t they?), without even hinting that the possibility of diplomatic prevention is viewed by some as an illusionary course.
On the other hand, when Patrick reports that the majority would support an attack if this were the only option for prevention, he hastens to dismiss such a line of questioning, on the grounds that it “problematically [assumes] that military force would necessarily achieve the goal of dismantling the Iranian nuclear program”. Well, doesn’t the first line of questioning, the one with many options, also “problematically [assume that diplomacy] would necessarily achieve the goal of dismantling the Iranian nuclear program”?
In Patrick’s tone there’s clear motivation: He wants his readers to assume that the public opposes an attack on Iran. But that is not what the polls are telling us. Patrick might be right to be skeptical about the option of attack, as Prime Minister Netanyahu might be right to be skeptical about diplomacy. No option is free of weaknesses, and no option assures success.
Looking at polls though, is not the way for one to get an answer on the right policy, it is a way for one to understand where the public stands. And unlike the impression Patrick creates, the public is undecided on the method but quite sure about the desired outcome: Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped - by whatever means the pollster puts before us.
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