The Challenge of Selling a War With Iran

American public opinion and the advice of the U.S. intelligence community would make justifying attacks on Iran difficult.

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President Obama arrives for a statement at the White House / Reuters

The public debate on whether the United States and other countries are able to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon exhausted itself years ago. Yet, discussion about confrontation with Iran will persist until one of two things happens: Tehran provides sufficient transparency over its suspected nuclear weapons activities to meet the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tel Aviv, and Washington; or Israel and/or the United States attacks Iran's nuclear facilities. Unless the major players are bluffing and ultimately back down--which has happened before--one of these determining actions will likely take place within the next two years.

If President Obama--or any future occupant of the White House--does decide to attack Iran, there is an important prerequisite that has remained largely unexplored: How would the president sell the war to the American people?

The president wouldn't have to start from scratch. Iran has been demonized by the United States since the nascent Islamic Republic seized the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran and held fifty-two hostages from November 1979 to January 1981. Since then, polling has consistently demonstrated two strong beliefs: Americans do not like and are afraid of Iran. A recent Gallup poll found that 87 percent of Americans held an "unfavorable" opinion of Iran, a number that hasn't changed in decades. In addition, in a September 2011 survey asking, "Which country is the greatest threat to the United States?" 63 percent of respondents listed Iran first or second. (In June 2009, 79 percent of respondents believed Iran to be a "very serious" or "moderately serious" threat to the United States.)

Despite the polling numbers, Americans are largely split over a U.S. military attack on Iran (support ranges from 41 to 56 percent) and there is broad approval for stronger economic sanctions and diplomatic action. Interestingly, the action favored by most Americans (81 percent), "direct diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran," is not part of the Obama administration's strategy.

In addition to the lukewarm support among Americans for attacking Iran, President Obama or his successor would also have to tackle two problematic assessments from the U.S Intelligence Community (IC).

First, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has repeatedly reaffirmed since late January, "we don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon." Just yesterday, James Risen reported in the New York Times that the IC continues to believe (based on an assessment first made in November 2007) that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei halted his country's nuclear weapons activities in 2003.

Presented by

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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