ISIS Eclipses Iran as Threat Among US Public

by Jim Lobe

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, has just released a major new poll of US public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Mitchell Plitnick will analyze on this site in the next few days.

The survey also contains some very interesting data that suggest Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is now seen as a significantly greater threat to the United States than Iran. The data and Telhami’s analysis appear in a blog post entitled “Linking Iran and ISIS: How American Public Opinion Shapes the Obama Administration’s Approach to the Nuclear Talks” at the Brookings website. (Telhami is a long-time fellow at Brookings, and the poll results were released there.)

Briefly, the poll, which was conducted Nov. 14-19, found that nearly six times as many of the 1008 respondents said they believed that the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria “threaten(ed) American interests the most” in the Middle East than those who named “Iranian behavior in general.” Respondents were given two other options besides those to choose from: “the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “instability in Libya.” Libya was seen as the least threatening (3%); followed by Iran (12%), Israel-Palestine (13%), and ISIS (70%). The only notable partisan difference among the respondents was that Republicans rated Iranian behaviour (15%) slightly higher than Israel-Palestine (11%) as a threat, while Democrats rated Israel-Palestine (13%) slightly higher than Iran (9%).

In some respects, these results are not surprising, particularly given the media storm touched off by the beheading of American journalist James Foley in August. A Pew poll shortly after that event showed growing concern about Islamic extremist groups like al-Qaeda and IS compared to “Iran’s nuclear program.” Thus, while Iran’s nuclear program was cited by 68% of Pew’s American respondents as a “major threat to the U.S.” in November 2013—behind Islamic extremist groups (75%), only 59% rated it a “major threat” immediately after Foley’s murder.

Still, Telhami’s results are pretty remarkable, if only because neoconservatives, Israel’s right-wing government and the Israel lobby more generally have been arguing since IS began its sweep into Iraq, and particularly since Foley’s death, that Washington should avoid any cooperation with Iran against IS, in part because Tehran ultimately poses a much greater threat.

In June, for example, John Bolton, an aggressive nationalist at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), insisted that Washington should ignore Iraqi appeals for help against ISIS and instead “increase …our efforts to overthrow the ayatollahs in Tehran” because “Iran is clearly the strongest, most threatening power in this conflict.”

In a New York Times op-ed in October, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, appealed for Washington not to “repeat (the) mistake” it made in 2003 when it went to war in Iraq “…at the expense of blocking a greater threat: Iran’s nuclear project.”

“The Islamic Republic of Iran,” he wrote, “remains the world’s foremost threat.”

And one month later, speaking to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America shortly after Foley’s execution, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned against any cooperation with Iran against IS: “The Islamic State of Iran is not a partner of America; it is an enemy of America and it should be treated as an enemy,” he declared.

At least for now, it appears these arguments have not made much headway with US public opinion. Here’s Telhami:

[T]he Obama administration appears to have decided to risk appearing open to an Iranian role in fighting ISIS, as it certainly allowed the Iraqi government to coordinate such a role, and Secretary of State John Kerry described it as a good thing. There is evidence from recent polling that this may not be unwise when it comes to American public opinion. Obama assumes that nothing he is likely to do in the Iran nuclear negotiations will appease Congressional Republicans and thus his best bet is getting the American public on his side. Evidence shows the public may be moving in that direction.

The starting point is not about Iran as such; it’s all about shifting public priorities.

The survey also asked respondents which of two statements (you can read them in full on Telhami’s blog) was closest to their views—that Palestinian-Israeli violence was likely to draw more support for IS among Muslims worldwide or that it wouldn’t have any appreciable effect on IS’ support. In that case, 30% percent of all respondents agreed with the latter statement, while 64% said the former was closer to their view. Remarkably, given their leadership’s strong support for Israel’s right-wing government, Republicans (71%) were more likely than Democrats (60%) to believe that violence between Israelis and Palestinians would boost support for IS.

Finally, respondents were asked to choose between four options as to which country or countries are “most directly threatened by Iran”—the US, Israel, Washington’s “Arab allies,” and “Other”. Overall, 21% of respondents named the US, and another 21% named Arab allies, while 43% opted for Israel. Twelve percent chose “Other.” The poll found little difference between Republicans and Democrats on the Iranian threat posed to the US—19% and 24%, respectively. The major difference was on the perception of the threat to Israel: 38% of Democrats said Israel was most directly threatened by Iran, compared to 54% of Republicans. (Only 31% of independents.)

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. I agree, and there is a fairly good reason. After all, all the Iranian harliners got today is that idiotic, half-hearted (and of course, very insulting to all of us) chant of “Death to America”. And even that I understand has little appeal among the greater population of Iranians who are reportedly much more pro-American and Western oriented than the clerical regime lets on. ISIS, on the other hand, is resorting to the time-tested shock-troop approach that worked so well for the Mongol tribes, Huns and other barbarians who swept across Asia and Europe, levying genocide on a scale unseen before or since. Whereas the American public’s negative opinion of Iran started with that stain on humanity, the holding of 50+ Americans as hostages for over a year some 30+ years ago (and ultimately let go without much physical harm), today’s Americans’ opinion of ISIS is being freshly shaped by nightmarish images of innocent civilians kneeling before a satanic figure cowardly hiding his face and slaughtering a kidnapped, defenseless person who quite often was in that area to help refugees or to report. The approach that ISIS is using as a major component of its strategy by nature requires frequent doses of shock and gore, magnified with every possible tool for most effect to scare the population near and far and to give courage to their own troops. Their sweeping success that (shouldn’t but does) comes as a surprise to most Americans further heightens the sense of threat that Americans feel, because their mightiest military in the world that has been at it for over 13 years in Iraq has failed miserably against seemingly ragtag unconventional bandits.

    I hope Americans use this sense of threat to bring their leaders under control. It can be effectively argued that if today we have an ISIS in Iraq and all the turmoil in the Middle East, and 30+ years ago we had the revolution in Iran those were direct results of our horrible foreign policies, the so-called “blowback” effect. Those foreign policies have in the long run cost us immeasurably and at the end resulted in a net negative effect, and for that we can hold our leaders responsible. We need to get out of this world police mentality and attend to our own problems. In case anyone noticed, China just surpassed us as the number one economy.

  2. A good reference on US propaganda, with public opinion formed toward war by government/media collusion, is Norman Solomon’s “War Made Easy” — How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

    They follow Hermann Goering’s example: “Why, of course the people don’t want war . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship . . . Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country..”

  3. A sober question might be asked, why do the various think tanks/members of the neocon bent always want the U.S. to go to war against a bogyman, especially if Israel brands it? If IS is the current bad guy[s],. then why isn’t Israel censored for giving aid and comfort to the enemy?

  4. Mr Steinitz appeal to Washington, to not repeat the “mistakes of 2003 by going to war in Iraq” should be heeded. That mistake, a most egregious foreign policy blunder, undertaken by the right wing and Israeli supporters in the US gov’t has caused irreparable damage to this country and its government. Lest anyone should forget, Israels’ mantra at the time was the great threat Iraq posed to the US and, the Bremmers, Wolfowitz’s, Pearles etc. convincing the intellectually challenged Bush whose scope of world travel was limited to Kennebunkport, that we had to crush Saddam Hussein before a mushroom cloud appeared in Washington or New York. Iraq would have had a hard time hitting anyone with any weapons, including the fabricated ‘weapons of mass destruction’ at the time. We see the cost to this nation in terms of the thousands of lives that came back in body bags, the hundreds of thousands wounded and killed in Iraq, the permanently mentally and physically disabled that we are obligated to care for in perpetuity and now Mr Netanyahoo is “warning” us against any cooperation with Iran. THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN THE LESSONS OF HISTORY……………………………….!!

  5. The 71% fearful of ISIS are reacting to the beheadings, as Jim Lobe says, and also to the repeated warnings by the US media:
    CNS: ISIS threat warning issued to military, intel personnel
    ABC: ISIS Threat at Home: FBI Warns US Military About Social Media
    NBC: U.S. Intelligence Reveals Threats Beyond ISIS

    So the average American, who doesn’t have the time to look beyond the veracity of these “threats,” being busy with other higher-priority concerns in their lives, like putting food on the table, family and work, says yeah, ISIS is a major threat and Iran isn’t, because we have not received warnings on Iran.

    So the whole thing is managed, as I commented above. Now we have a good case for the Pentagon getting more money to waste. The “threats” work! Meanwhile the widespread US campaigns against Muslims mean that Americans can’t travel anywhere with impunity.
    “The Department of State is updating the Worldwide Caution to provide information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world. U.S. citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness. This replaces the Worldwide Caution dated April 10, 2014.”–Oct 10, 2014 — (We might all become Canadians when we travel, but Canada isn’t so pure anymore either.)

    Polls in the Middle East, among people who actually live there by Brookings and others, and not polls of Americans who don’t live there, have indicated that Arabs fear Israel and the US, who have nukes, and not Iran which doesn’t.

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