Getting Confused Answer on Iran Nukes

Official Washington’s conventional wisdom on Iran that it is building a nuclear weapon though the U.S. intelligence community says it isn’t is spilling into the results of public opinion polls. The false assumption about Iran’s nuke program affects both the questions and the answers, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The conventional wisdom A well-recognized attribute of opinion polling is that the wording of questions heavily influences the results of a poll. Even experienced and reputable organizations without any apparent ax to grind nonetheless sometimes fall into sloppy wording that heavily and misleadingly skews the responses.

This is especially apt to happen with topics encumbered by conventional wisdom that is widely accepted even if it may be erroneous. The Iranian nuclear program is one such topic.

An Iranian child holding a photo of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at one of his public appearances. (Iranian government photo)

The Pew Research Center produces some of the most informative and useful opinion research on foreign affairs, addressing both American attitudes toward overseas problems and attitudes of foreign populations on issues pertinent to U.S. foreign policy. But a question that it asked of a sample of 1,501 Americans a couple of weeks ago about Iran and nuclear weapons was not one of its more carefully constructed efforts.

Respondents were asked whether it is “more important” to “prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action” or to “avoid military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons.” Worded this way, it is hardly surprising that a solid majority of 64 percent picked the first choice and 25 percent chose the second, with the rest categorized as “other/don’t know.”

Set aside the fact that the question implicitly accepts the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a very bad outcome. Also never mind that the question does nothing to suggest to the respondent any of the respects, including ones highlighted in the recently published study of the subject conducted by the Center for the National Interest, in which war with Iran would be a very bad outcome.

Then note that the question conflates what are really two different questions: the apple of war vs. no war with Iran, and the orange of how much to worry about the Iranian nuclear program.

Worst of all, the question as worded wrongly posits a military attack and an Iranian nuclear weapon as alternatives to each other, when in fact they would be more likely to occur in tandem. As the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, Iran has not to date decided to build a nuclear weapon. One of the likely consequences of a military attack on Iran, by either the United States or Israel, would be to precipitate just such a decision.

A more factually based question that would retain as much of the original version’s structure and wording as possible would be:

Is it more important to…

Take military action against Iran, even though this may lead Iran to decide to build nuclear weapons, or

Avoid military conflict and rely on diplomacy to try to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is used only for peaceful purposes.

The result of asking this question is apt to be at least as one-sided as the one that Pew asked, and this time it would not be the first alternative that gets the majority.

The problem is not to be laid only at the feet of Pew or of pollsters in general. The problem is a cloud of presumption that has made debate in the United States over Iran’s nuclear activities one of the least informed debates among any that have gotten as much attention as this one has.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Getting Confused Answer on Iran Nukes

  1. hammersmith
    April 5, 2013 at 09:35

    The American people are ignorant, but they think ideologically, so they believe whatever they want to.

  2. maike edws
    April 3, 2013 at 20:35

    may be

  3. Revo
    April 2, 2013 at 20:04

    As an Israeli journalist, Larry Derfner, put it, “If Israel and America want to prevent a Middle East nuclear arms race, which was started by Israel 40 years ago, let Israel give up its nukes first. And if Israel is unwilling to do that, let Israel and America stop complaining about Iran – or anyone else.”

  4. annna
    April 2, 2013 at 12:30

    as a member of NPT, like all other countries including the USA.. why dont they allow UN in the facilities it is using nuclear tech in.

    if they have nothing to hide then why do they do so.. seems pride is a major issue for this country. it IS not only *WESTERN NATIONS* that are worried about iran getting nukes.

    plus that last iranian president was as mad as gorge bush jnr

  5. peace
    April 1, 2013 at 23:27

    U.s. and its allies should understand that Iran,s nuke for peaceful purpose they are sanctioning it and warning it to be attacked that is not
    Showing that u.s. wants to solve this problem
    Peacefully or justifyingly. I suggestion to western countries accept iran as
    a developing country, don,t be not happy and please do not try to destroy its economy.

  6. Don Bacon
    April 1, 2013 at 19:42

    Polls on Iran are irrelevant and worthless because the American people have been consistently lied to about Iran. Obama ran his 2008 campaign on the scary “Iran threat” and his Zionist-quoting line is typical for current US political and media parrots.

    Don’t blame the citizens. They haven’t been told the truth and so why ask them anything about it? GIGO

  7. Kevin McC
    April 1, 2013 at 16:59

    The way “I” read the Pew Research question is that most Americans 1) see Iran having an offensive nuclear weapon as extremely dangerous, 2) that given where Iran is geographically located, more dangerous than that of North Korea having offensive nuclear weapons, 3) that (perhaps) diplomacy (which is the best option and which is being pursued currently) will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and 4) if diplomacy fails, that, if military action by the US will stop Iran from developing “nukes”, on a ratio of 64:25, the avg American would go along w/such action. Not asked, but I would think a majority of Americans would also agree that Iran having “nukes” would be dangerous for Israel, Europe and for ‘most’ nations in the M.E. In addition, my gut says most Americans think that a nuclear-armed Iran is so dangerous that the US would not have to “go it alone” against Iran shd diplomacy fail; that other nations would join in air/missile strikes against Iran to ‘set-back’ Iran’s nuclear weapon’s program 3-5 yrs.

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