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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 12-13, 15

Two Views

Who Wants War With Iran?

Little U.S. Popular Support for Israeli Attack on Iran

By Jim Lobe


Amid persistent speculation over a possible Israeli military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities in the wake of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, a detailed new public opinion survey released March 13 suggests that such a move would enjoy little support in the United States.

According to the survey by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), only one in four U.S. respondents favors an Israeli strike, while nearly seven in 10 (69 percent), including a strong majority of Republicans (59 percent), said they prefer continuing negotiations with Tehran.

Only one in seven (14 percent) of the survey's 727 respondents said they thought Washington should encourage an Israeli attack, while 80 percent said the U.S. should either discourage Israel from taking such a step (34 percent) or maintain a neutral position (46 percent).

And, consistent with their preference for diplomacy over military action, nearly three out of four respondents, including 69 percent of Republicans, said the U.S. should act primarily through the U.N. Security Council, rather than unilaterally, in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

Meanwhile, a second public opinion poll released the same day by The New York Times and CBS News found a slight majority (51 percent) of 1,009 respondents who said they would support the U.S. taking military action in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

That poll, which did not offer an option for continued diplomacy or negotiations, found that 36 percent of respondents would oppose such a strike. The remaining 13 percent said they were unsure.

Asked what the U.S. should do if Israel conducted its own unilateral strike, a 47 percent plurality said Washington should support the Jewish state, 42 percent said it should "not get involved," and only 1 percent said the U.S. should oppose it.

The two surveys were released just days after the annual policy conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose 13,000 activist-attendees were addressed by Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, among other luminaries, before fanning out across Capitol Hill to lobby their elected representatives for a more confrontational U.S. stance toward Iran and its nuclear program.

Top Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu during his visit to Washington, have been suggesting for several months they were prepared to attack Iran's nuclear facilities some time this year unless Tehran agreed to abandon its nuclear program.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, has made clear, especially over the past three months, that unprecedented economic sanctions, combined with renewed negotiations with Iran by the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) should be given more time to reach a diplomatic settlement. Britain and France also came out publicly in March against an Israeli strike.

It is not yet clear what was the impact, if any, of the AIPAC conference on popular attitudes.

On the one hand, the results in the Times/CBS poll—which was conducted over four days (March 7-11) immediately after the conference—about U.S. military action against Iran were essentially no different from those of polls conducted over the past three years that also asked respondents whether they would support or oppose a U.S. strike against Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

On the question of how the U.S. should react to an Israeli attack on Iran, on the other hand, the latest poll suggested an increase in support for Israel when compared to a Pew Research Center poll just one month earlier in which 51 percent of respondents said Washington should "stay neutral" under such circumstances.

At the same time, 42 percent of respondents supported Obama's "handling of the situation in Iran," while 39 percent opposed. But the PIPA poll, which was conducted during the conference (March 3-7), probed far more deeply into attitudes about an Israeli strike against Iran and related issues, noted Peter Ferenbach, an expert on foreign policy attitudes and co-founder of ReThink Media, an organization that works with nonprofit groups.

"It's a welcome exploration of what Americans really think about Iran's nuclear program, and, not surprisingly, people's responses are more nuanced when the issue is explored in depth," he told Inter Press Service, adding that the "policy debate has been ill-served by a long string of poorly designed polls on this critical issue."

"The phrasing of the Times/CBS poll—'Do you favor using military action against Iran to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons?'—has a built-in efficacy bias that presumes a military strike would end Iran's nuclear program, a view held by virtually no one at the Pentagon."

Indeed, the PIPA poll found that most respondents were pessimistic about the effects of a military strike on Iran's nuclear program. Only one in five (18 percent) said they believed that an Israeli military strike will delay Iran's alleged ambition to acquire nuclear weapons by more than five years.

A 51 percent majority said they thought a strike would either delay Iran's ability to produce a weapon by only one to two years (20 percent), or would have no effect (9 percent), or would actually result in Iran accelerating its nuclear program (22 percent).

Interestingly, those percentages were similar to the findings of a survey of Israeli public opinion on the same question conducted in late February by Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Sadat chair at the University of Maryland, which co-sponsored the PIPA poll.

In a widely noted interview on CBS's popular "60 Minutes" public-affairs program March 11, former Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan also noted that an Israeli strike could at best delay Iran's program.

A 51 percent majority in the PIPA poll also said an Israeli attack would either strengthen the regime (30 percent) or would have no effect on its hold on power (21 percent), while 42 percent said the regime would be weakened.

Moreover, only one in five respondents said they believed armed conflict between Iran and Israel would last either days or weeks. Three of four respondents said they believed such a conflict would last months (26 percent) or years (48 percent).

"One of the reasons Americans are so cool toward the idea of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear program is that most believe that it is not likely to produce much benefit," said Steven Kull, PIPA's director.

Nearly six in 10 respondents (58 percent) said they thought Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons and is actively working toward that aim, an assertion that is at odds with the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, which most recently concluded that, while Tehran "is developing some of the technical ability necessary to produce nuclear weapons, [it] has not decided whether to produce them."

Thirty percent of respondents agreed with the latter position, while only 6 percent accepted Iran's repeated assertions that it is producing enriched uranium for civilian purposes only.

Asked to assume that Iran actually developed nuclear weapons, 62 percent of respondents said they believed the regime would likely use them to attack Israel, as opposed to only 32 percent who thought it would be deterred from doing so for fear of being destroyed in a nuclear retaliatory strike.

Jim Lobe is Washington, DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service. Copyright © 2012 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.


Lobbying for War

By Philip Giraldi

There has been considerable discussion of the meaning, or lack thereof, of the apparent difference of opinion between the United States and Israel over both the desirability and the possible timing of going to war with Iran. Those Americans who still revere the Constitution and the advice of the Founding Fathers should rightly be appalled that a war is even being considered on behalf of a small client state with which the United States has no treaty obliging such intervention. War with Iran would undoubtedly follow the usual pattern, being authorized by the White House without the constitutionally mandated declaration of war by Congress and likely developing out of an evolving situation in which Israel is being given a free pass to initiate the conflict.

That the United States is in such a parlous condition is directly due to the effective work of Israel's principal lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has just completed its annual convention. Consider what AIPAC and its friends in Congress and the media have accomplished: Understanding that the truth about Iran would not support their case, they have completely skewed the narrative about the threat posed by that country. Iran has no nuclear weapon, has not made a decision to acquire one, and may not even have the technical ability or financial resources to do so even if its government decides to move in that direction. Yet, AIPAC has succeeded in convincing the American public that Iran is already a nuclear power and is somehow a threat to the United States, all despite the fact that Iran, far from being an aggressor, has been on the receiving end of covert operations run by Washington and Tel Aviv that have killed scores of Iranians. President Barack Obama has unhesitatingly endorsed the AIPAC line, emphasizing in his speech to that organization on March 4 that Iran is a security problem for the United States and the entire world, an elaboration straight out of Israel's playbook that was noted approvingly by no less than Tom Friedman of The New York Times. Friedman asks "whether he [Obama] is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most."

AIPAC has also been effective in lining up Capitol Hill in its support. One-third of Congress attended the AIPAC conference, and a number of individual legislators have been actively promoting the lobby's line. Sen. Carl Levin [who has received more pro-Israel PAC contributions than any other member of Congress—ed.] is now calling for a military blockade of Iran, a clear act of war. Thirty-two senators, including Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, are supporting legislation that will essentially authorize taking military action against Iran because it has the "capability" to create a nuclear weapon, a line that has already been crossed by Tehran as well as by other states in the region, including Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Why pick on Iran? Because that is what Israel wants (Israel, one might add, has, unlike Iran, attacked a number of its neighbors in recent years). Israel also possesses its own secret nuclear arsenal, giving it a combination of political recklessness and potentially cataclysmic military power that apparently causes no heartburn in Congress.

It is being argued in some circles that Obama has been resisting the Israeli drive to go to war because his defense and intelligence chiefs insist that the "red line" with Tehran is the actual possession of a nuclear weapon, but is that really true? He has muddied that apparent position by insisting that he will "prevent" the Iranians from obtaining the bomb. Prevention means pre-emption, possibly based on the same type of fabricated intelligence Americans saw in the lead-up to Iraq. To be sure, the Pentagon and the intelligence community are undeniably cool on the prospect of a new war in the Middle East, understanding clearly that the unintended consequences after the last bomb is dropped could be devastating to the economy and to the sustainability of the remaining American presence in places like Afghanistan. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has been active in trying to persuade the Israelis to defer action, stating both that Iran is a "rational actor" and that a war right now would serve no one's interest. For his pains, Dempsey has been called everything short of an idiot and his judgment has been denounced by strategic geniuses such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. In truth, Iran has been demonized to a point where it is difficult to imagine any nonviolent way out of the current contretemps.

Would that Obama had stood firm behind Dempsey, but he did not. Instead, in his interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that preceded his speech at AIPAC, he does little more than pander to the Jewish community by offering bromides and assurances. He told both Goldberg and AIPAC that the United States has "Israel's back" and that the U.S. commitment to Tel Aviv's security is unquestioned while assiduously avoiding the fact that Israel pays little regard to Washington's regional and global interests. There is no nuance in statements like those made by the American president. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who repeatedly and hyperbolically calls Iran a threat to the whole world, has the whip hand in the relationship and he knows it, even if Obama thinks that he might have contrived some wiggle room. Steve Clemons correctly describes it as "the emotional and political leverage that Netanyahu has engineered over Obama." Ironically, it creates one of those exceedingly rare moments in which one might wish for the return of George W. Bush. Bush, for all his manifest failings, told Israel not to attack Iran, and the Israelis respected or feared him enough to desist.

Or, to make the same point in another way, if Israel attacks Iran next week and Iran retaliates, a virtual certainty, then the United States will inevitably become involved in the conflict, with Congress and the media leading the charge, just as they did against Iraq. On March 9, 86 Republican members of Congress demonstrated how it will work, sending a letter to Obama pledging "unwavering support" for Israel and concluding that the White House must "make our offer of support and assistance to Israel crystal clear if Israel finds it necessary to take action against Iran." So Israel is empowered to make the decision whether America goes to war or not, at least for those 86 Republicans, who would almost certainly be joined by numerous Democrats. Given that reality, if someone can come up with an alternative scenario in which automatic American involvement does not take place, it has yet to be explained plausibly. Will Obama simply refuse to play? In an election year? Not likely. Many are convinced the war is coming, including White House senior staff.

So what can the rest of us do when the war comes? Very little. The only man who can conceivably stop it, President Obama, is clearly thinking of timing. If the fighting starts too soon and goes sour, which it will, he will lose the presidency. If it happens just before elections, he can pitch in to help brave little Israel and ride to victory as the latest in America's unforgettable series of wartime presidents. If there is no war at all, Obama wins because he kept the peace. So the timing must be right if there is a war, and this is another thing that the Israelis understand. They and AIPAC can make or break Obama, and the president can do little to derail the process. Will Bibi want to continue with the man he dislikes and distrusts in the White House or will he feel more comfortable with Mitt Romney, a man who has already stuffed his foreign policy team with the same neoconservative Israel-firsters who brought about Iraq and who genuinely do have Netanyahu's back come hell or high water? Stay tuned.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. This article was first posted on <>, March 15, 2012. Copyright © 2012. Reprinted with permission.