Paul Pillar

False Choices on Iran

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.

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.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kevin Zollman. CC BY-SA 2.5.