That's remarkable considering how much less certain most experts seem. Take, for example, the National Intelligence Council, the senior panel that issues the government's National Intelligence Estimates. It continues to stick with its opinion that Iran once had such a program, but closed it down in 2003. U.S., European, and Israeli officials consistently say that Iran does not have an ongoing program and hasn't even decided to pursue one, that at most the Iranians are hanging out near the starting line. Iran's supreme leader himself issued a fatwa against building nukes. Why, then, is the American public so certain? How did we get here?
There are three main reasons, only one of which is partially innocent.
What's in a Name?
The first is linguistic and quite simple. Say these words out loud: Iran's civilian nuclear program.
Does that sound familiar? Do those words look normal on the page? Chances are the answer is "no," because that's not how the media, public officials, or political candidates typically refer to Iran's nuclear activities. Iran has a civilian nuclear power program, including a power plant at Beshehr, that was founded with the encouragement and assistance of the Eisenhower administration in 1957 as part of its "Atoms for Peace" program. Do we hear about that? No. Instead, all we hear about is "Iran's nuclear program." Especially in context, the implied meaning of those three words is inescapable: that Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons.
Out of curiosity, I ran some Google searches. The results were striking.
"Iran's disputed nuclear weapons program": 4 hits
"Iran's possible nuclear weapons program": about 8,990 hits
"Iran's civil nuclear program": about 42,200 hits
"Iran's civilian nuclear program": about 199,000 hits
"Iran's nuclear weapons program": about 5,520,000 hits
"Iran's nuclear program": about 49,000,000 hits
Words matter, and this sloppiness is shaping American perceptions, priming the public for war.
Some of this is probably due to laziness. Having to throw in "civilian" or "weapons" or "disputed" or "possible" makes for extra work and the result is a bit of a tongue twister. Even people with good reasons to be precise use the shorter phrase, including President Obama.
But some of it is intentional.
The Proselytizing Republican Presidential Candidates
The second reason so many Americans are convinced that Iran is desperately seeking nukes can be attributed to the field of Republican candidates for the presidency. They used the specter of such a weapons program to bash one another in the primaries, each posturing as the biggest, baddest sheriff on the block -- and the process never ended.
The hyperbole has been impressive. Take Rick Santorum: "Once they have a nuclear weapon, let me assure you, you will not be safe, even here in Missouri." Or Newt Gingrich: "Remember what it felt like on 9/11 when 3,100 Americans were killed. Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros. And it's 300,000 dead. Maybe a half million wounded. This is a real danger. This is not science fiction."
And then there's Mitt Romney: "Right now, the greatest danger that America faces and the world faces is a nuclear Iran."
The Regime-Change Brigade
Even if they're not exactly excusable, media laziness and political posturing are predictable. But there is a third reason Americans are primed for war: there exists in Washington what might be called the Bomb Iran Lobby -- a number of hawkish political types and groups actively working to make believers of us all when it comes to an Iranian weapons program and so pave the way for regime change. It should be noted that while some current and former Democrats have said that bombing Iran is a good idea, the groups in the lobby all fall on the Republican side of the aisle.
Numerous conservative and neoconservative think tanks pump out reports, op-eds, and journal articles suggesting or simply stating that "Iran has a nuclear weapons program" that must be stopped -- and that it'll probably take force to do the job. Just check out the flow of words from mainstream Republican think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and AEI. ("It has long been clear that, absent regime change in Tehran, peaceful means will never persuade or prevent Iran from reaching its nuclear objective, to which it is perilously close.") Or take the Claremont Institute ("A mortal threat when Iran is not yet in possession of a nuclear arsenal? Yes...") or neoconservatives who sit in perches in nonpartisan institutes like Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations ("Air Strikes Against Iran Are Justifiable").
You can see this at even more hawkish shops like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, with its "campaign to ensure that Iran's vow to destroy Israel and create ‘a world without America' remains neither ‘obtainable' nor ‘achievable.'" (According to one of its distinguished advisors, a Fox News host, Iran has "nuclear weapons programs" -- plural). At the old Cold War group the Committee on the Present Danger, Iran is "marching toward nuclearization." Retired general and Christian crusader Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council even told Glenn Beck, "I believe that Iran has a nuclear warhead now."
There are also two organizations, much attended to on the right, whose sole goal is regime change. There's the Emergency Committee for Israel, a militantly pro-Israel group founded by Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer that links the Christian right with the neocons and the Israel lobby. It insists that "Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear weapon," and it's pushing hard for bombing and regime change.
No less important is the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident cult group that was recently, amid much controversy, removed from the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. The MEK brought Israeli intelligence about Iran's then-active nuclear weapons program into the public eye at a Washington press conference in 2002. Since then, it has peppered the public with tales of Iranian nuclear chicanery, and it ran a major lobbying campaign, paying dozens of former U.S. anti-terrorism officials -- several of whom are now in the defense industry -- to sing its praises.
It wants regime change because it hopes that the U.S. will install its "president-elect" and "parliament-in-exile" in power in Tehran. (Think of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, who played a similar role with the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They even have some of the same boosters.)
And then there are the groups who want war with Iran for religious reasons. Take Christians United For Israel (CUFI), an End-Times politico-religious organization run by John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio. As scholar Nicholas Guyatt shows in his book Have a Nice Doomsday, Hagee's organization promotes the belief, common among fundamentalist Christians, that a war between Israel and Iran will trigger the Rapture.
Hagee's own book, Countdown Jerusalem, suggests that Iran already has nuclear weapons and the ability to use them, and he aggressively advocates an attack on that country. To many mainstream Americans, Hagee, his followers, and others with similar religious views may seem a bit nutty, but he is not to be discounted: his book was a bestseller.
The Supporting Cast
Republican-friendly media have joined the game, running blustery TV segments on the subject and cooking the books to assure survey majorities that favor military action. Take this question from a March poll commissioned by Fox News: "Do you think Iran can be stopped from continuing to work on a nuclear weapons program through diplomacy and sanctions alone, or will it take military force to stop Iran from working on nuclear weapons?" Absent priming like this, a majority of Americans actually prefer diplomacy, 81% supporting direct talks between Washington and Tehran.