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.