Polling On Iran’s Nuclear Program And The ‘Efficacy Bias’ Of Military Action

The underground Iranian nuclear facility near Qom (Credit: Reuters)

A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Friday found that a majority of Americans (59 percent) think that “Iran is a threat that can be contained for now” and that 58 percent of those polled said that they would support the United States taking military action against Iran “in order to prevent them from producing a nuclear weapon.”

While the first finding on containment is nothing new; the Times/CBS poll has had similar results on that question since 2003, what’s notable about this particular survey on Iran’s nuclear program is that the question on military action is incomplete. The question — “Would you favor or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran in order to prevent them from producing a nuclear weapon” — assumes that an attack would definitely prevent Iran from acquiring nukes without any consequences.

But this is a flawed assumption. There’s no way to destroy Iran’s nuclear knowledge, and it’s unlikely that a military strike would be able to destroy Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure. An attack might also actually push the Iranians toward making the decision to build a nuclear weapon, which would mean, in effect, that a strike would only delay an Iranian nuclear weapon while absolutely convincing them of the need for one.

Iran’s nuclear program cannot be “bombed away,” a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists concluded in April. “Given the country’s indigenous knowledge and expertise, the only long-term solution for assuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains purely peaceful is to find a mutually agreeable diplomatic solution,” the report said.

Former Israeli security officials also question the utility of military strikes. “Attacking Iran will encourage them to develop a bomb all the faster,” said former Israeli domestic security chief Yuval Diskin. Meir Dagan, the former head of Israeli intelligence, agreed. “A strike could accelerate the procurement of the bomb. … We would provide them with the legitimacy to achieve nuclear capabilities for military purposes,” he said.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta echoed these concerns, agreeing that “bombing would at most delay [Iran’s nuclear] program or derail it up to two or three years at most.”

The other problem with the New York Times/CBS News poll question on a military attack on Iran is that it seems to assume a strike will have no negative consequences. But according to a bipartisan expert report, an attack could lead to an “all out regional war” lasting “several years,” with attacks on American interests throughout the Middle East, a breakdown of the international coalition on Iran, a sharp increase in the price of oil and the “increased likelihood” of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Again, former top Israeli officials agree. “We are going to ignite, at least from my point of view, a regional war. And wars, you know how they start. You never know how you are ending it,” Dagan said referring to starting a war with Iran. Ephraim Halevy, like Dagan, also formerly head of Israeli intelligence, said that “[a]n attack on Iran could affect not only Israel, but the entire region for 100 years.”

So what might we see if the Times/CBS poll had taken these factors into account? According to a recent analysis of public opinion polling on Iran by ReThink Media, “polls that explore the consequences and effects of a military attack on Iran produce a shift in opinion. The prospect of a protracted war increases opposition to military action.”

Indeed, a Reason-Rupe poll released in April 2012 found that support for an attack on Iran plummeted when presented as “similar in length and costs” to the Iraq war. Moreover, when presented with a choice of whether Americans support diplomacy or war in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, in at least three recent major polls, more Americans chose the former.

“Unfortunately,” ReThink said in its analysis, “too many polls continue to ignore questions of efficacy — e.g., the fact that many Pentagon officials do not believe a strike would end or significantly slow an Iranian nuclear program — and are posed in a way that assumes such attacks would be successful,” a phenomenon ReThink calls the “efficacy bias.”