How Misinformation Poisons the Iran Debate

More Americans incorrectly believe Iran possesses nuclear weapons than know that Israel has them.

Shibley Telhami describes the findings of a new University of Maryland Critical Issues poll taken earlier this summer. There are a number of interesting results from the survey, but perhaps the most striking one was the discovery that more Americans incorrectly believe Iran possesses nuclear weapons than know that Israel has them:

Seventh, more Americans think Iran possesses nuclear weapons than think Israel does. While Israel has been known to possess nuclear weapons for decades (without officially acknowledging it) and Iran is not known to have ever possessed any, the American public perception presumes a different reality: 60.5%, including 70.6% of Republicans and 52.6% of Democrats, say Iran possesses nuclear weapons — compared to 51.7% who say Israel does, including 51.7% of Republicans and 51.9% of Democrats.

The results are maddening on one level, but they make a kind of sense when you consider how Iran’s nuclear program is covered and Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal is almost never mentioned. It is commonplace in news stories, commentary, and television coverage for people to talk about Iran’s nuclear program as though Iran’s government is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Many news stories still mislabel Iran’s program as a nuclear weapons program when it is well-established that Iran has not had anything like a nuclear weapons program in almost two decades. Iran and North Korea are frequently lumped together in presidential speeches and in news reports, and the two are often treated as if they pose comparable threats when they absolutely do not.

Iran hawks constantly, dishonestly talk about the nuclear deal as “paving the way” for a nuclear weapon, and our Iran policy debate has revolved around the possibility of an Iranian bomb for so long that it is not entirely surprising if many Americans wrongly conclude that Iran must have already acquired such weapons. It is not an accident that 70% of Republicans wrongly believe Iran has nuclear weapons when virtually every outlet in conservative media is banging the drums of threat inflation and fear-mongering every day. Meanwhile, Israel’s arsenal of dozens of nuclear weapons is never so much as acknowledged even in passing. Israel’s government does not talk about it, and neither does ours, but its existence is an open secret.

Even worse than the majority of Americans that thinks Iran has a nuclear weapon is the pitifully small number of respondents that say that Iran does not have any. All of the evidence shows that Iran lacks the necessary materials to build nuclear weapons. Their government has repeatedly made the political question not to pursue them. Despite that, only 15% of all Americans correctly answer that Iran doesn’t possess these weapons. 23% say they don’t know, and 60% give the wrong answer. In other words, more than four-fifths of the public doesn’t know the correct answer to a simple question about a matter of fact on one of the most high-profile foreign policy issues of the last 15 years. That is what decades of misinformation and propaganda will get you. It’s enough to make any sane foreign policy analyst despair and go into another line of work.

It would be worth asking some simple follow-up questions of the people that believe Iran has nuclear weapons: what do they think the purpose of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was? If they think Iran already has nuclear weapons, why would so many governments have gone to so much trouble to secure a nonproliferation agreement to prevent that outcome? Even simpler follow-up questions suggest themselves. If you believe Iran has nuclear weapons, what led you to that conclusion? When do you think they acquired them?

Public misperceptions about foreign threats don’t just happen, and they aren’t harmless. 60% of Americans wrongly believe that Iran has nuclear weapons because they have been told for the better part of 20 years that Iran was “hell-bent” on getting them. Hawks make a constant effort to promote falsehoods about foreign threats in order to frighten the public into acquiescing to more aggressive policies, and eventually they use those falsehoods to agitate for military action. If that many people believe Iran has nuclear weapons, that likely makes it much easier for Iran hawks to sell an attack on Iran.