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.)

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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. In light of these new findings then public opinion should look more favorably on the prospect of Iran getting nukes as away of countering the ISIS beheaders. Any data on this?

    Ironic that this poll was put out by the Brookings Institute which gets funding from the gov’t of Qatar which, it turns out, as some allege, funds ISIS.

  2. I think it’s notable that Iran still maintains a place in the American psyche as a threat to global stability and American security interests. ISIS happens to take a more prominent role because their busy cutting people’s heads off, but as with all the crises the media covers it will be replaced by another one, but Iran will always stay a constant in American’s minds as a threat as it should be.

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