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Striking Iran, questions and assumptions

by Shmuel Rosner

May 25, 2012 | 9:48 am

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting the nuclear plant at Natanz. (Photo: Reuters)

We just updated our J-Meter Iran Trend Tracker with new numbers ‎from the recent PEW survey. They show wide and growing support for ‎a military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a ‎support that is well documented in the Iran Trend Tracker – with ‎caveats: Americans support a strike when presented with a two-option ‎question – to attack or not to attack – but are much less supportive ‎when a three-option is presented – to attack, talk or give up (they tend ‎to choose talking and sanctioning). You can see it all in the tracker. And ‎besides, the ongoing talks between the international community and ‎Iran have the potential to sway public opinion, as we explain in the J-‎Meter: ‎

The coming weeks and public perception of the way talks with ‎Iran progress (namely, ‎are they skeptical like Netanyahu or more ‎willing to be hopeful about it?) might change ‎this overall support ‎for military action.‎

The left-leaning Think Progress was critical of the PEW survey that ‎we’ve added, for the following reasons – that do have some merit:‎

Respondents were asked to choose [PDF, page 27] between ‎‎“preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it ‎means taking military action,” or “avoiding a military conflict ‎with Iran, even if means Iran may develop nuclear weapons.” Built ‎into these questions is the assumption that military action can ‎prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or, conversely, that ‎the lack of military action may ensure an Iranian nuclear weapon. ‎Policy experts in Israel and the U.S. have consistently challenged ‎this understanding of the Iranian nuclear showdown.‎

Think Progress writer Eli Clifton is right to point out the fact that a two-‎option question forces respondents to either support an attack or to be ‎willing to accept a nuclearized Iran. If one believes that a third option is ‎available – or that no option is available – it is reasonable for one to be ‎suspicious of a two-option question. Clifton’s analysis of the problem, ‎though, is guilty of a graver sin than the one with which he takes issue ‎with PEW. He argues that, “Built into these questions is the assumption ‎that military action can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons ‎or, conversely, that the lack of military action may ensure an Iranian ‎nuclear weapon”. Not true: the questions were carefully worded. The ‎first option is: “preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, ‎even if it means taking military action” – and is meant to identifying ‎respondents that believe in prevention, even if the cost is high. This is ‎not support for attack - it is support for prevention at all costs. The ‎second option is: “avoiding a military conflict with Iran, even if means ‎Iran may develop nuclear weapons” – and is meant to identify those ‎respondents that have more fear of attack than fear of a nuclearized ‎Iran. Even if this means that Iran goes nuclear, these respondents (a ‎minority of Americans according to this survey) would oppose an ‎attack.‎

Why Clifton would like to discredit this survey is clear – he opposes an ‎attack. That he can arguably say that some options were omitted from ‎the survey is true: a respondent who believes that nothing can stop ‎Iran has no good answer to choose. But claiming that the wording of ‎the questions implies that only attack can prevent Iran from becoming a ‎nuclear power is misreading the question. And one suspects it is not an ‎innocent misreading, one that is less innocent than the wording of the ‎PEW question.‎

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