Last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s former national security advisor appeared on the morning television program of the MSNBC network and was asked about the subject of Iran. The program, which is called “Morning Joe,” does not have high ratings, but it has a high-quality audience of opinion makers and is therefore highly influential particularly in Washington. In the last number of years, Brzezinski has been calling for greater pressure from the Obama administration on Israel and has been highly critical of Israeli policy. When the issue of Iran came up, he suddenly turned to what he described as “a very interesting poll” that was just published by the Saban Center in Washington, which Brzezinski noted “has strong ties with Israel.” Indeed, last week Israeli political leaders and ministers converged on Washington to take part in the annual Saban Forum, which brings together policymakers from government, national media commentators, and many former officials who still wield influence.
According to Brzezinski, the poll showed that in order to get Iran to give up its nuclear weapons, a majority of Israelis would favor Israel giving up its reported nuclear capabilities. Brzezinski was clearly supportive of the idea since he stated that this position by the Israeli public showed its “sophistication and intelligence.” Checking the Saban Center website, the actual language of the question it asked was: “Given a choice of two options, one where both Israel and Iran have nuclear weapons and one where neither has them, 65% of Israeli Jews support the latter while only 19% support the former.”
It is noteworthy that the poll does not offer the Israeli public a third option: namely that Iran be denied nuclear weapons and Israel be left alone. It also did not ask Israelis if Iran could be trusted to live up to a commitment to halt its nuclear program. Thus, given the limitations of the questionnaire, Brzezinski was not far off in his presentation of the Saban Center Poll. It should be added that the poll, which was conducted by Dr. Shibley Telhami, may have not received enormous coverage in the mainstream media, but nevertheless became part of the “talk of the town” among those dealing professionally with the Middle East.
With all the attention that the Saban Center Poll received last week, there was a more fundamental issue that was not being raised: why was this question that created a link between Israel and Iran on the nuclear issue being asked to begin with? Public opinion polls in Israel are usually used to look into the degree of support for real policy options that Israeli citizens might face. There are polls regularly done on whether Israelis support Palestinian statehood, which has been a matter of debate among Israeli political parties. But no mainstream Israeli party in the Knesset has made such a diplomatic proposal for dealing with Iran.
Alternatively, polls might be used for a trial balloon: that is, to put forward an idea on the national agenda, that is presently not being considered, but a pollster wants to advance. That is what makes this poll so strange, for why would anyone want to create a link between the Iranian nuclear program and Israel. The link does not appear in the six U.N. Security Council resolutions on freezing Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Sure in formal diplomatic circles there is always talk about the need for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, but not even the Saudis have demanded that Israeli disarmament must be a prerequisite for stopping Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. Yet when a poll like this becomes part of the public discourse in Washington, one cannot rule out the possibility that the idea will enter the policy arena in Western capitals in the future.
In the Arab world, the dangers of Iran are becoming well understood. A poll published in July 2011 by James Zogby under the Arab-American Institute found that Arab support for Iran has plummeted in the last year: a substantial majority believe that Iran plays a negative role in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. If in 2006, 85 percent of Saudis had a favorable view of Iran, that number dropped to just 6% in 2011. In Egypt the number dropped from 89 to 37, while in Jordan the drop was from 75 to 23. The idea that Israel might have to pay the price for a harsher Western policy on the Iranian nuclear program is simply divorced from reality, given the growing concerns about the Iranian drive for regional hegemony among Arab publics and not just among Arab governmental elites.
The real intellectual flaw in the Israel-Iran question in the Saban Center poll, is the idea that Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is connected primarily to Israel and to what Israel does. The fact that Iran seeks nuclear capability to dominate the Middle East is not a factor according to this analysis In contrast, the Arab states know that Iran has claimed Bahrain as its 14th province and they witnessed Iranian involvement in the Shiite revolt. Saudi Arabia is concerned with Iranian support for the Shiite disturbances in its oil-rich Eastern Province. All the Arab states look with trepidation at what will happen once the U.S. withdraws this month from Iraq, and the al-Malaki government turns the country into an Iranian satellite state.
Indeed, there is a serious danger for Israel if the distorted idea spreads that it somehow is the main threat motivating Iran’s nuclear program. Many in the West are looking for excuses for not confronting Iran over its nuclear program. They know that placing a total embargo on Iranian oil could affect the international price of oil and make a Western economic recovery more challenging. It would be far easier for many states to pressure Israel into making concessions rather than focus on Iran alone. Nevertheless, the idea that the Iranian nuclear program is linked to Israel must be fully rejected, whether it appears in the international media or it is slipped into a public opinion poll conducted by a Washington think tank.