by Jim Lobe
After assessing detailed arguments for and against the pending Iran deal, as well as alternatives proposed by its critics, a majority of a representative sample of registered voters concluded that Congress should approve the July 14 agreement if it comes to a vote next month, according to a major new survey released Tuesday.
Fifty-five percent of respondents ultimately came out in favor of the deal, according to the survey, which polled 702 voters on August 17-20.
By contrast, 44% said that the agreement should be rejected and favored an alternative course. Twenty-three percent recommended increasing sanctions against Iran and companies that do business with it, while 14% said they preferred trying to renew negotiations to get better terms. Seven percent opted for threatening Iran with military action unless it agrees to those terms.
However, strong majorities of both self-described Democrats (72%) and Independents (61%) recommended approval of the deal, while a large majority of Republicans opted for rejection and pursuit of the alternatives.
The partisan difference marked a significant change from a similar survey just over a year ago on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran that led to the July 14 agreement. At that time, there were no significant differences between self-identified Republicans and Democrats on whether the U.S. should enter into a deal in which the major global powers lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for strict curbs on its nuclear program.
The University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC) designed and carried out both surveys based on the so-called “Citizen Cabinet” model. This method simulates the policy-making process: respondents were given briefings on the subject and arguments pro and con on all options before being asked to make a final recommendation.
In the latest survey, each respondent received six critiques of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known. Each critique was itself subject to pro and con arguments.
The survey organizers developed all of the arguments in consultation with congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle, as well as other experts. This process ensured that the arguments were balanced and accurately reflected both the basic facts regarding the deal and the views of all parties to the debate.
Momentum Shifting in Congress
The new PPC survey comes out at a moment when the Obama administration appears to be succeeding in gaining the support of a sufficient number of Democrats to sustain a veto against congressional rejection of the JCPOA. Officials are hoping to marshal enough Democratic support in the Senate (41 votes against a resolution to reject the JCPOA) so that a veto won’t be necessary.
At the same time, the deal’s opponents, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are pouring tens of millions of dollars into television, radio, and Internet ads, in a campaign that appears to have gained some traction with the general public. In the latest Quinnipiac poll released Monday, for example, 55% of respondents said they oppose the deal, while only 25% said they supported it. Another 20% said, however, that they didn’t know enough to make a judgment. A CNN poll taken in mid-August found that only 41% of respondents said that Congress should approve the deal, while 56% said it should be rejected.
In rather stark contrast to the PPC survey, neither of those polls provided meaningful details about the deal itself. Indeed, the Quinnipiac poll simply asked respondents, “Do you support or oppose the nuclear deal with Iran?” without any further elaboration. Such phrasing is more likely to elicit the respondent’s feelings about Iran than on the substance of the “nuclear deal.”
According to a Reuters survey, about 39% of the public as of August 28 said that they had heard “a little bit” about the nuclear accord, and another 28% said that they had “not heard anything at all.” About 25% said they had heard “a fair amount,” and only 8.5% claimed to have heard “a great deal.”
The PPC’s director, Steven Kull, said the latest survey showed that respondents, when informed about the contents of the JCPOA and its various pros and cons, were indeed worried about certain aspects of the deal and their implications.
“There is a lot of concern about key terms of the deal, especially the limits on inspections and the release of frozen funds to Iran,” he said. “Standard polls are reflecting these concerns, but when voters think through the issue, they conclude taking the deal is better than any of the alternatives.”
A Partisan Divide
Indeed, the new survey should hearten the administration and its supporters who, of course, are focused virtually exclusively on persuading Democratic lawmakers in both houses to rally behind Obama and the JCPOA.
Although 65% of Democrats supported Obama’s efforts to conclude an agreement in the 2014 survey, 72% of Democrats found the actual agreement acceptable when asked to make a final assessment. And although 51% of Independents said that they supported the negotiations last year, 61% said that they were satisfied with the outcome in the latest survey.
Republicans support for Obama’s efforts, on the other hand, has declined sharply. Although 62 percent of Republicans said that they preferred negotiating an agreement that would ease sanctions in return for curbing Iran’s nuclear program a year ago, only one in three that said the JCPOA was acceptable. Thirty-six percent said they favored increasing sanctions, 20% recommended trying to renegotiate the deal, and 9% said that they believed that Washington should threaten to take military action unless Iran agreed to terms they deemed acceptable.
The pool of respondents, however, did not consider any of these alternatives likely to succeed. Fifty-four percent of respondents thought that it was unlikely that Washington’s negotiating partners in the P5+1 would go along with any effort to reopen the negotiations (the alternative that is most widely promoted by congressional opponents of the deal). And four out of five respondents (79%) considered it unlikely that Iran would agree, in any case.
A slightly higher percentage (81%) of all respondents said that they thought that threatening military action was unlikely to prove effective.
To make your own assessment about the JCPOA and its alternatives, the PPC has set up the same policy-making simulation on a public site.
Photo: Steven Kull