by Nancy W. Gallagher
A recent article in The Hill claimed that “a strong majority of voters—including most Democrats” want the United States to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
The results it cites are at odds with many other polls. For example, a CNN survey done the same week found that 67 percent of Americans did not think that the United States should withdraw from the nuclear deal, while only 27 percent thought that it should.
The Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland did an in-depth survey in December 2016 that asked explicitly about renegotiation. After reading arguments used by the incoming Trump administration against the deal, as well as arguments in favor of continued U.S. participation, two-thirds of respondents opposed withdrawing from the deal and seeking to renegotiate. Seven in 10 doubted that it would be possible to extract any more concessions from the Iranians.
The Hill article is based on data from the most recent Harvard-Harris poll. The pollsters did not, however, follow the standard practice for academic public opinion research of disclosing what percentage of respondents picked “don’t know” or refused to answer a question. Instead, they calculated percentages based only on those who picked one of the offered response options. This is normally only done in advocacy polls to drive up a number one is trying to project. The practice can make it look like there is majority support for a position when the percentage of respondents who chose that option is actually under 51% when the “DKs” and “NAs” are included.
The Iran deal was only one of many issues covered by this survey. One question not mentioned in The Hill article undercuts any notion that the American public is clamoring for renegotiation. Only one percent of respondents thought that “undoing the Iran deal” should be the top priority for President Trump and Republicans in Congress.
The survey question that supposedly showed support for renegotiation is seriously flawed. It asked respondents to choose between two competing statements that were ostensibly pro and con arguments for renegotiation. Yet neither of the statements actually said that the United States should seek to renegotiate the deal now, and both included factually incorrect assertions.
The statement offered in support started by saying that “the deal is not perfect,” without saying anything positive about what it does do. It then asserted that “the Iranians are building up their nuclear capability secretly.” Even strong opponents of the deal do not make this patently false statement. Proponents make the opposite point that the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly affirmed that Iran is in compliance. The “pro” statement concluded by saying that despite the deal’s imperfections and Iran’s cheating, “we should not rock the boat and just let it all slide along.” This sounds more like a caricature made by an opponent than a serious presentation from a supporter of the deal.
The con argument did not provide evidence of Iranian violations. Even President Trump has not asserted that Iran is in material breach of its legal obligations, saying instead that some of Iran’s actions outside the scope deal violate its “spirit.” What Trump refused to certify—against the recommendation of his top security advisors—was that the national interest continues to be served by giving Iran some sanctions relief in return for special limits and transparency arrangements on their nuclear program.
The con argument is posed as a hypothetical: “if Iranians are not compliant we have to call them out on it and push to renegotiate the deal with real verification.” It is hard to see how even a strong proponent of the deal could disagree with the principles that arms-control agreements should include effective verification and that countries who violate arms-control commitments should be held accountable.
Given how the pro and con arguments were framed, it’s frankly surprising that only seven out of 10 opted for the option that emphasized accountability and effective verification, instead of turning a blind eye to cheating.
Strikingly—given the biased wording of previous questions—the poll found that the public is essentially evenly divided over Trump’s decertification decision, another result not mentioned in The Hill article. This was the only question in the survey that reminded respondents that U.S. actions could end the special limits and transparency measures on Iran’s nuclear program. It noted that decertification triggers a decision by Congress about “whether to end the deal by putting sanctions back on Iran.” Harvard-Harris reports that 51% approved Trump’s decertifying, while 49% did not. As noted above, though, without DK and NA response rates reported, it’s not clear what percentage of all respondents really thought that decertification was the right decision.
The Harvard-Harris poll gave the same 51-49 breakdown for a broader question about whether respondents support or oppose what President Trump is doing against Iran. This is extraordinarily peculiar, given the large majority responses against the deal in the poll’s other questions. But such wild discrepancies between responses to different questions in the same poll can happen when balance and grounding in factual context are lacking.
Nancy Gallagher is the director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Photo: Joint commission on the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.