FPI Bulletin: Public Opinion and the Nuclear Deal with Iran

September 16, 2015

American voters like the idea of a negotiated agreement to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. What American voters don’t like is the actual agreement that the Obama administration negotiated with Iran. This distinction is crucial for understanding the results of opinion polls that may otherwise seem inconsistent.

According to the latest poll from the Pew Research Center, only 21 percent of respondents support the nuclear deal while 49 percent are opposed, a sharp decrease in support since July, when 33 percent approved of the deal with 45 percent opposed. Support fell across the board among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

At first blush, the results of the latest poll from CNN seem to tell a very different story.  It found that 49 percent of respondents wants Congress to reject the nuclear deal with Iran – a result comparable to the one reported by Pew – yet 47 percent want Congress to approve the deal, more than twice the level of support reported by Pew. In fact, CNN reports a higher level of support for the deal this month than it did in either July or August.

The critical difference between the CNN and Pew results is the precise question that each survey asked. Pew simply asked, “From what you know, do you approve or disapprove of this agreement?” In contrast, CNN prefaced its question with the declaratory statement, “As you may know, the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons before it can take effect.”  (Emphasis added.)

Did CNN mean to say that congressional approval is required before the deal can take effect, or that Iran must abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons before the deal’s implementation? The latter would represent an especially generous interpretation of the nuclear agreement, which lifts almost every sanction on Iran in exchange for the temporary limitations on a portion of its nuclear infrastructure. Nor is it especially precise to say that congressional approval is required, since President Obama only needs the support of one-third of the members of either the House or Senate to move the deal forward. Regardless, good pollsters know that the meaning of their questions must be clear if the results are to be trusted.

The contrast between the Pew Center’s straightforward question and CNN’s confusing one is representative of the polling results so far. When asked for a simple yes or no, voters say they oppose the deal. When provided with details that suggest the deal is a good one, voters take the cue and respond more positively.

In early August, a Quinnipiac poll found 28 percent support for the deal and 57 percent opposition. The poll simply asked, “Do you support or oppose the nuclear deal with Iran?” CBS News got a somewhat different result by providing respondents with the option of saying they don’t know enough to evaluate the agreement, while informing them that the deal would “limit Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons for more than a decade in return for lifting economic sanctions.” In that case, 20 percent supported the deal, 33 percent were opposed, and 46 percent said they didn’t know enough to decide. Interestingly, voters also told CBS, by a margin of 53-26, that the United States could’ve negotiated a better deal, a point with which even self-identified Democrats agreed by a margin of 41-38.

A Monmouth poll from early August generated similar results to the one from CBS. It showed 27 percent support for the deal and 32 percent opposition, with 41 percent saying they weren’t sure. Sixty-one percent also told Monmouth that they trusted Iran “not at all” to abide by the terms of the deal; 28 percent said they trusted Iran “a little” and 6 percent, “a lot”. In addition, 41 percent said Iran got the better end of the deal, while 23 percent said both sides got what they wanted, and just 14 percent saying the U.S. came out ahead.

Among all the polls taken since the announcement of the nuclear deal in mid-July, the apparent outlier is a Washington Post-ABC poll that found 56 percent support for the deal with 37 percent opposition. However, before asking respondents for their opinions, polltakers told them, “The U.S. and other countries have announced a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons. International inspectors would monitor Iran’s facilities, and if Iran is caught breaking the agreement economic sanctions would be imposed again.”

Since the deal allows Iran to delay inspections of suspicious sites, and a reported side deal would let Tehran conduct some monitoring on its own, it is insufficient to say that international inspectors would monitor Iran’s facilities. Similarly, critics have challenged the effectiveness of the “snapback” mechanism for re-imposing sanctions. In effect, the polltakers chose to endorse the Obama administration’s view of two of the deal’s most important provisions.

That kind of approach generated similar results for PPP, a polling firm known for leaning Democratic. It told respondents the deal would only provide “gradual relief” from sanctions. Furthermore, “The International Atomic Energy Agency would monitor Iran’s facilities and if Iran was caught breaking the agreement, the current economic sanctions would be imposed again.” Not surprisingly, it reported approval for the deal by a 54-38 margin.

Several polls taken before the announcement of the nuclear deal strongly suggest that the American public was very receptive to the idea of limiting the Iranian nuclear program via negotiation. On that basis, one may infer that opposition to the actual deal reflects discomfort with its provisions, not instinctive opposition to negotiating with a hostile adversary.

In June, Fox News asked for opinions about a potential “agreement that would involve the U.S. easing economic sanctions on Iran for ten years and in return Iran agreeing to stop its nuclear program over that period.” Supporters edged out opponents by a margin of 47-43, the same result as when Fox first asked the question in March. If Iran had agreed to “stop” its nuclear program rather than just pausing it, the actual deal may have garnered a similar level of support.

In April, CNN found an even greater margin of support – 53 to 43 – for a hypothetical deal “that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities.” In contrast, the actual deal permanently lifts almost all sanctions, rather than easing them. It is also debatable whether it imposes “major” restrictions on Iran.

In addition to Fox and CNN, Quinnipiac, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Washington-Post ABC tandem all found strong support for hypothetical deals that achieved key American objectives via negotiation. Had the agreement lived up to such expectations, perhaps there would now be greater support.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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