Why has the United States not bombed Iran? The domestic politics of America's response to Iran's nuclear programme
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Nor can the constancy of the American no-attack posture towards Iran be effectively explained as a reflection of American public opinion. In fact, the results of numerous public opinion polls conducted since 2006 suggest that the American public is hardly averse to preventive military action against Iran.9 Poll results are notoriously sensitive to the wording and framing of the questions but, allowing for this sensitivity, the aggregate picture emerging from the surveys at minimum does not indicate deep-seated opposition to preventive strikes against Iran. For example, a Zogby International poll of likely voters in October 2007 found that 52 per cent of the respondents would support a US military strike to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon;10 and a survey conducted two years later by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicated that ‘There is broad willingness across the political spectrum to use military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear’.11 Strikingly, although Iran’s nuclear installations remain under the surveillance of the International Energy Atomic Agency and although the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme, 71 per cent of the respondents in a February 2010 CNN poll gave an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Do you think Iran currently has nuclear weapons, or not?’ In sum, survey data indicate that the alarmist tenor of official US portrayals of the Iranian menace has permeated popular attitudes and that the American public would most likely have approved of a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Public opinion cannot be said to have restrained the US from launching such a strike.
Additionally, there are indications that the strengthened economic sanctions regime orchestrated by the Obama administration is taking a heavier toll on Iran than most experts have expected (Sanger 2010a). The global financial activities of Iranian banks have reportedly been severely curtailed (Kessler 2010) and the Iranians have ‘faced difficulties refueling airplanes in Europe, getting some ports to accept their ships and attracting much-needed investment for oil production’ (Sanger 2010a). The apparent effectiveness of the sanctions regime and the apparent successes of covert efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme are bound to make an overt attack on Iran appear less urgent, thus strengthening the hand of bureaucratic actors opposed to military strikes. Therefore, barring the emergence of dramatic new evidence of Iran’s nuclear intentions—for example, a new NIE concluding with high confidence that Iran has earnestly resumed its nuclear weaponization efforts—it is likely that, in the foreseeable future, the policies that Secretary Gates was instrumental in shaping will outlast his tenure at the Pentagon.