Fear Itself: Americans Believe Iran Threat on Par With 1980s Soviet Union

A new poll shows that Americans today are more afraid of Iran than they were of the USSR in 1985, a peak of the Cold War.

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Left, Russian troops move an intercontinental SS-19 missile. Right, parading a mid-range Shahab-3 missile in Tehran. AP

In November 1985, CNN commissioned a poll asking Americans to gauge the Soviet Union's threat to the U.S. It's hard to overstate how serious, how existential and immediate, that threat was, and Americans seemed to know it.

At the time, 39,000 Soviet nuclear warheads were pointed at the rest of the world, enough of them ready on push-button alert to destroy the United States near-instantaneously and many times over. Mikhail Gorbachev had recently taken power after two short-lived and tumultuous predecessors; nobody was sure how he would act. Within the White House, CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Robert M. Gates insisted that Gorbachev was another hard-liner to be confronted, something that was reflected in President Reagan's decision to increase military spending and to publicly denounce the Soviet threat, especially as part of his 1984 reelection campaign. Two years earlier, he had called the Soviet Union the "evil empire," Soviet jets had shot down a Korean airliner carrying a U.S. congressman, the U.S. had invaded Grenada, and the Soviet Union had nearly launched thermonuclear war against the U.S. after misconstruing a NATO missile test as preparations for a preemptive strike. It was, as Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko put it, "the least safe time to live on earth."

According to the November 1985 poll, 76 percent of Americans viewed the Soviet Union as a "very serious" or "moderately serious" threat. Only 32 percent of respondents classified the Evil Empire as a "very serious" threat. This week, CNN released a poll asking the same question, this time about Iran and other hostile nations. It estimates that 81 percent of Americans believe Iran is a "very serious" or "moderately serious" threat, with 48 percent calling it "very serious." While fear of Iran isn't yet on par with the absolute height of the Reagan-era Cold War (CNN fielded three polls during conflict-rife 1983, returning 90 percent, 87 percent, and 88 percent), it's up from June 2009, and has surpassed fear of the Soviet Union during one of the Cold War's most dangerous years.

Iran's dangers to the U.S. are real: it's been directly involved in anti-U.S. violence in Iraq and probably Afghanistan, threatened to cripple the global economy by closing the naval channel through which much of the world's oil passes, makes no secret of its hostility to America, and may have even tried to kill a Saudi ambassador staying in the U.S. If Iran weaponized its nuclear program, probably its greatest contributor to Western anxiety, an already unstable Middle East would get that much closer to conflict, and the list of national nuclear proliferators would grow, making the risks of unwanted nuclear war or loose nuclear materials that much higher.

But the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire into every American city. Iran has zero. The Soviet Union had was at the time one of the largest, most advanced conventional militaries in world history, proxies around the globe, and a proven track record of winning wars against, for example, Nazi Germany. Iran's last conventional war was a bitter 8-year stalemate with Iraq, which the U.S. defeated (in conventional military terms, at least) in a matter of weeks on two separate occasions. Iran's unconventional threat is real, but mostly limited to the far-away Middle East; its one recent attempt on U.S. soil was a spectacular failure.

So why do Americans see Iran today as a threat on par with the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s? In a Foreign Affairs piece arguing that the U.S. is safer than either Americans or U.S. policymakers think, Zenko and Michael Cohen suggest three reasons:

The disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering results from a confluence of factors. The most obvious and important is electoral politics. Hyping dangers serves the interests of both political parties.

Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests. The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government -- defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.

There is also a pernicious feedback loop at work. Because of the chronic exaggeration of the threats facing the United States, Washington overemphasizes military approaches to problems (including many that could best be solved by nonmilitary means). The militarization of foreign policy leads, in turn, to further dark warnings about the potentially harmful effects of any effort to rebalance U.S. national security spending or trim the massive military budget-warnings that are inevitably bolstered by more threat exaggeration.

Still, today's politics are not unique. Reagan ran in 1980 and 1984 as a tough, anti-Soviet leader who would confront the Evil Empire around the globe. U.S. politicians had been emphasizing Soviet dangers for decades, going back to the 1964 "Daisy" ad, often credited with aiding Lyndon B. Johnson's victory against Republican Barry Goldwater.

Another possible factor could be the media. In the 1980s, CNN was just getting started, and would not make its first big splash until the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. News was still consumed less often, in much shorter cycles, and between fewer outlets. In 1985, the average American might read a newspaper in the morning and watch one show at night, say 30 minutes of CBS Evening News anchored by Dan Rather. Today, he or she is bombarded by multiple, fast-moving, infographic-laden 24-hour news channels, which also have to compete with one another. A viewer might hear a dozen times about Iran in the course of a single news cycle, including from opinionated pundits who might not have made it onto the air 30 years ago.

That's not a dig at the news media, just a note that the structure of the media has changed with technological advances, and that these changes have in turn altered how information is consumed. Occasional segments do over-reach: warning about a "terrifying new reason" to fear Iran's (probably non-existent) U.S.-based "terrorist A-team"; declaring "no one buys Iran's claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes" (in fact, the U.S. intelligence community has been quite clear that believe Iran is not yet pursuing a nuclear weapon); and running the chryon "IS IRAN PLANNING AN ATTACK IN AMERICA?" for an 8-minute segment that at no point actually presents evidence it is. But these are of course outliers. The more common, and possibly more influential, trend is in emphasizing the aspects of a story that might keep viewers on the channel: for example, the threat of an Iranian nuclear program might receive more air time than would (admittedly duller) reminders of the limits of Iranian power and objectives.

This sort of coverage could explain why 84 percent of Americans believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons and 71 percent believe Tehran already has them. (To be fair, there is a substantial and long-running debate in Iran and elsewhere about Iran's nuclear intentions.) By comparison, zero percent of U.S. intelligence and military chiefs believe either of these things. Could the sorts of information these two groups consume play a part in their divergent understandings of the world?