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The Daily Need

How do Israelis and Americans feel about the drumbeat toward war with Iran?

Preparing for war: A section of underground parking that can be used as a bomb shelter for 1,600 people at the Habima national theater in Tel Aviv. Photo: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

The seemingly inexorable march toward an armed conflict with Iran received a fresh boost this week when the Associated Press reported that Israeli officials do not plan on warning the United States if and when they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The rationale, according to an unnamed American official, is that Israeli officials want to keep the U.S. in the dark, so the Obama administration can’t be blamed for failing to stop the attack.

But the article, one of a slew of reports in recent weeks citing unnamed sources on the likelihood of a conflict between Israel and Iran, would seem to suggest that the machinery of war is in motion. The New York Times, for example, also reported this week that Iran is likely to launch terrorist-style attacks against U.S. civilian and military targets if Israel does indeed strike one or more of its nuclear facilities. The article seems, in a way, to be both downplaying the potential blowback of an attack on Iran and also to be softening the ground for a likely U.S. role in any Iran-Israeli conflict.

American politicians have only added fuel to the fire. The Republican candidates for president, for example, have essentially engaged in a game of one-upmanship over who can sound tougher and more bellicose toward Iran. Newt Gingrich has openly called for sabotaging Iranian oil refineries and assassinating Iranian scientists, saying, “If we were serious, we could break the Iranian regime.” Mitt Romney has called Iran “the greatest threat we face.” And Rick Santorum has said, flat out, that as president he would bomb Iran unless the country immediately agreed to dismantle its nuclear program.

Rep. Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, has condemned the drumbeat toward war with Iran, saying in a speech on the House floor recently, “The rhetoric in Washington about the military strike against Iran leads me to think that we may be sliding into a new war yet.” Bewildered, Ellison added: Two months after leaving Iraq, we have already forgotten the consequences of war it appears.”

Indeed, there seems to be a significant amount of support among an otherwise war-weary public for a possible attack on Iran. A Pew Research Center survey found recently that nearly six in 10 Americans favor bombing Iran in order to prevent that country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Only 30 percent of respondents said it was more important to avoid a military conflict. Those numbers are in spite of the fact that most Americans favor a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and an end to the war there.

It’s unclear what, exactly, is responsible for the apparent appetite for war among the American public. Lingering hostility from the 1979 hostage crisis might be at work, as well as the fact that Iranians remain largely alienated from Americans — we haven’t had a diplomatic relationship with them for three decades. The Obama administration’s foreign policy successes, including the relatively painless war in Libya and the assassination of terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden, may also have emboldened Americans fearful of an Iranian nuclear bomb. The fact that these successes have been engineered using air power and unmanned drones has also, arguably, left Americans largely anesthetized to the human costs of war.

It would seem, in fact, that Americans are even more eager for war with Iran than Israelis themselves. A poll conducted by Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, found that only 19 percent of Israelis favor a strike on Iran without U.S. backing. Another 42 percent said they would favor an attack on Iran only with firm American backing. And another third of Israelis said they were flatly against war. Those numbers changed only modestly when the sample was modified to include only Israeli Jews.

Why are Israelis so reticent? Well for one, they seem to have a much less optimistic view of the outcome of an attack on Iran. According to the poll, a majority of Israelis said a missile strike on Iran would lead to a protracted conflict lasting months or years. And only 22 percent said such a strike would actually delay Iran’s nuclear program for more than five years. The cost-benefit ratio, it seems, is much different for Israelis than it is for Americans.

Nonetheless, Israeli leaders see an Iranian nuclear weapon as an intolerable existential threat, and are pushing American officials to get on board with a possible pre-emptive strike. According to a report in the Guardian, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to demand that President Obama express support for an attack on Iran if sanctions fail. The White House is considerably more timid. Each side, it seems, is more in line with the others’ electorate.

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  • M. Tsur

    PBS, CAN YOU SAY, ‘OBTUSE’?The only minds out there confused about the threat from Iran are those that choose to be. The simple answer to Americans’ willingness to consider in urgent terms military action or something like it to answer this threat is the irreversible and terrible consequences of allowing Iran to get nuclear weapons. 

    To characterize this unwinding sequence of events as America’s, ‘ . . inexorable march toward an armed conflict with Iran’ is patently biased. The facts point irrefutably to a rogue state with a history of fanatism and a clearly stated intention of violence against regional neighbors and the world at large. Meanwhile the rest of the planet is mindful of the history of tyrannical regimes that spout vitriol and the sheer folly of allowing even the suggestion that such rogues should become armed with the most destructive weapons ever imagined.

    Just how will PBS word the apology to humanity when nuclear Iran makes good on the threats the world has heard and prudent voices have raised to warn?

  • jan

    There are a lot of rogue states/nations/countries out there and many more which have the potential of turning rogue. How many of them do you plan to attack?  All of them or just a select few?  Do we finish obliterating our shredded economy trying to attack them?  There is a point when some of us, at least, would expect common sense to kick in and say “The wars stop here.  They stop now.”  and last but not least “We can’t afford to waste any more money on unnecessary wars.”  It is time to bring diplomacy back into the conversation.

    As I understand it, Iran is to some extent a divided country with internal conflicts.  Why would we want to unite them behind what they would see as a war to revenge themselves against us after we attacked them?  And then there’s the China factor.  Do you also plan to attack China if they decide it isn’t in their interest to lose Iran’s oil? 

    I don’t think you’ve thought this thing through. 

  • Richard Pelto

    Is it possible to widen discourse? What if Iran did get atomic weapon capability? Wouldn’t that create a balance of power in the Middle East, and thus make Israel think twice about assassinating, bombing people in other countries while diminishing Greater Israel aspirations, and at the same time diminishing the occupation bulldozing of homes, fruit trees, acquisition of water, arbitrary arrests freely indulged in through continued occupation? The threat to the U.S. wouldn’t be much different from North Korea’s.

  • bill

    for the rich and politicians..WARS are a no overhead America.the tax payer foots the bill..with there tax dollars and there lives.while the rich and -politicians and corporations get big time rich..