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.
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.