U.S. policy towards Iran has emerged as the most discussed foreign policy topic of the GOP presidential candidates and most of them have routinely engaged in — as President Obama put it recently — “loose talk of war” with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, polling released last night by CBS News and the New York Times suggests that Americans support a more militaristic approach in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. However, the poll makes assumptions about Iran’s nuclear program that are not supported by available evidence, assumes military action will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and overall, it fails to provide, as other polls have shown, the breadth of views that Americans have on this issue, particularly their support for diplomacy.
The poll found that 47 percent of respondents think the U.S. should support Israel launching “an attack on Iran to try to stop its nuclear weapons program” while 42 percent think the U.S. should “not get involved.”
But there is a problem with the question’s premise. It is currently unknown whether Iran has a “nuclear weapons program” for Israel to stop. The IAEA has warned about a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program but neither the IAEA nor reports from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense have said that Iran has made the decision to build a bomb. Much like the Quinnipiac poll last November, the pollsters casually refer to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” when no conclusive proof of a weapons program has been produced.
The new CBS/NYT poll also found that 51 percent favor “U.S. military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon” while 36 percent opposed such action.
The question implicitly asks respondents to assume that military action against Iran would prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon. But Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials are far from sharing that assumption. In a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, former Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan explained that a military strike could, at best, only delay Iran’s nuclear program. And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking at a press conference last year, agreed that “bombing would at most delay that program or derail it up to two or three years at most.”
But most importantly, the CBS/NYT poll results on Iran leave a false impression that a majority of Americans favor military action in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But when other recent polls have presented options, respondents have favored diplomacy over war.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week found that a plurality of 49 percent, when presented with a scenario in which Iran “is close to developing a nuclear weapon,” think the U.S. should either “take no action unless Iran attacks the U.S. or its allies” (17 percent) or “take stronger diplomatic and economic action to put pressure on Iran but should take no military action” (32 percent). Forty-seven percent said take military action or support an Israeli attack. And a CNN poll released last month found that 60 percent of Americans support economic and diplomatic efforts to “get Iran to shut down its nuclear program” while only 17 percent favored military action. CAP recently charted the CNN poll’s results:
President Obama has warned about the dangers of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, including undermining the nonproliferation regime, endangering regional security and risking a bomb falling into the hands of terrorists. But he also stressed just last weekend that “an opportunity still remains for diplomacy — backed by pressure — to succeed.”
The CBS/NYT poll did not ask if respondents supported diplomacy to solve the Iranian nuclear issue, but the poll found that 42 percent support Obama’s “handling of the situation in Iran,” while 39 percent opposed.
In the write up for the poll, CBS news characterized its question on whether the U.S. should support an Israeli attack on Iran as Israel “considering an attack on Iran to try to stop its nuclear weapons program.” Thus this post charged that the CBS/NYT poll assumed, without proper evidence, that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. However, the actual poll question on this issue does not make that assumption. The question asked, “What should the U.S. do if Israel were to attack Iran in order to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons program?” However, again, this question also baselessly assumes a military attack would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.