Why Israel Won't Attack Iran

March 14, 2012

In News

American Public Opposes Israel Striking Iran

If Israel and Iran Have Military Conflict, Americans Say US Should Stay Out

A new poll finds that only one in four Americans favors Israel conducting a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Seven in ten (69%) favor the US and other major powers continuing to pursue negotiations with Iran, a position that is supported by majorities of Republicans (58%), Democrats (79%) and Independents (67%).

Consistent with this emphasis on a diplomatic approach, three in four say that the US should primarily act through the UN Security Council rather than acting by itself in dealing with the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.

If Israel goes ahead with a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program and Iran retaliates, but not against American targets, only 25% favor the US providing military forces if Israel requests them (though support is a bit higher among Republicans at 41%). Another 14% favors the US providing diplomatic support only.

However, few would support open opposition.  The most popular position is for the US to take a neutral stance, which is supported by 49%.

Asked what they think the US government would do if Israel strikes, a slight majority (54%) thinks that the US would at least provide diplomatic support, including 32% who think that it would join the conflict militarily.

These are some of the findings of a new poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. The polling project was directed by Steven Kull, Director of PIPA, and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The poll of 727 Americans has a margin of error of +/-4.5% and was fielded March 3-7 by Knowledge Networks.

Only 14% of respondents said the US should encourage Israel to strike Iran’s program, but views are mixed as to whether the US should openly discourage Israel or stay neutral.

Steven Kull, Director of PIPA, comments, “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.”

Only 18% believe that a military strike would delay Iran’s abilities to develop a nuclear weapon for more than five years–with no partisan differences.   As Shibley Telhami points out: “Interestingly, this result is barely different from the view of Israelis who were asked the same question in a February poll I conducted among Israelis, which was fielded by the Dahaf Institute.”

A majority believes that a strike would delay Iran just 1-2 years (20%), will have no effect (9%), or will even have the effect of accelerating Iran’s program (22%).   One in five believes that it would delay Iran’s program 3-5 years.

Less than half (42%) believe that a strike would weaken the Iranian government–again, Israelis were similar, with 45% holding this view.  A slight majority believe that it would either have no effect (21%) or that the government would even be strengthened (31%).

Also, few Americans believe that a strike will involve a short exchange. A large majority believes an Israeli strike would lead to at armed conflict between Israel and Iran that would last months (26%) or even years (48%).   A small number have the more optimistic view that it would last just weeks (12%) or days (9%). Israelis are a bit more optimistic, but still only a minority believes that a conflict would last weeks (19%) or days (18%).

Americans’ reluctance to support a military strike does not appear to arise from a sanguine attitude about Iran’s nuclear program.  Americans show substantial pessimism about Iran and its nuclear program.

Fifty-eight percent believe that Iran has decided to try to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so.  Only 30 percent agree with the view of US intelligence services that Iran “is developing some of the technical ability necessary to produce nuclear weapons, but has not decided whether to produce them.”  Even fewer (6%) believe Iran’s stated position that it is producing nuclear fuel strictly for its energy needs.

Nine in ten believe it at least somewhat likely that Iran will eventually develop nuclear weapons.  If Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, 62% believe it likely that Iran would use them against Israel, while just 32% believe that Iran would be deterred for fear of being destroyed in a retaliatory strike.

If Iran develops nuclear weapons the largest concerns are that Iran would either use nuclear weapons (44%) or that Iran would feel emboldened to pursue aggressive policies toward the US and its allies (24%).  A lesser concern (19%) is that it would engender a nuclear arms race in the region.

This study was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection. Spanish only speakers are provided with Spanish questionnaires. Additional technical information is available at