by Jim Lobe
Sixty-one percent of the American public prefers a deal permitting Iran to continue limited uranium enrichment and imposing intrusive inspections on its nuclear facilities in exchange for some sanctions relief, according to a unique new survey released here Tuesday.
In contrast to previous polling on attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program, the survey, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland between June 18 and July 7, also found no significant differences between self-identified Republicans and Democrats on the issue.
The poll, which was released as negotiations between Iran and six world powers intensified in Vienna in advance of the July 20 deadline for an agreement, was distinct in the level of detail provided to the respondents before they ultimately had to choose between “a) making a deal that allows Iran to enrich but only to a low level, provides more intrusive inspections and gradually lifts some sanctions; [and] b) not continuing the current negotiations, imposing more sanctions, and pressing Iran to agree to end all uranium enrichment.”
As noted by George Perkovich, who heads the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the survey methodology “modeled a rational thought process” much more rational than that which can normally be found in the US government. “Most members of Congress don’t spend much time on this except when they meet with someone who’s writing a check,” he said at the survey’s release.
Nonetheless, he and Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the survey’s findings suggests that, if indeed a deal is reached with Iran, the Obama administration will be in a good position to sell it.
This “Citizen Cabinet” method simulated the policy-making process: respondents were given briefings on the subject and arguments — both for and against — the two options before they were asked to make a final recommendation.
The briefings and arguments were vetted in advance by independent experts and Congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle, according to Steven Kull, the Program’s director, to ensure as much accuracy and balance as possible within the US political context. You can judge this for yourself by examining the study and its methodology (beginning on p. 5). More than one staffer, Kull said Tuesday at a press briefing, commented that the respondents “are going to know more than their Member (of Congress) knows” after reviewing the material.
“At this point, the public doesn’t have a clear idea,” said Kull. “[This survey] tells us what would happen if we had a bigger debate,…and people had more information.”
All of the briefing materials were provided to respondents via the Internet, and access was arranged for those who lacked it. According to Kull, only 16 out of the 748 randomly selected respondents did not complete the exercise, which also required participants to assess each of the arguments separately for their persuasiveness before making a final policy choice. I won’t bore you with further details about the methodology, but here are the main findings:
- 61% of all respondents ultimately opted for a deal, while 35% chose the sanctions route.
- 62% of self-identified Republicans opted for a deal, compared with 65% of Democrats and only 51% of independents. Kull said they found no significant differences between respondents living in “red” and “blue” districts.
- Support for a deal correlated strongly with education levels. While 71 percent of respondents with at least a college degree supported a deal, that was true of only 46 percent of respondents who did not graduate from high school and 54% of those with only a high school diploma.
Still, it’s worth noting that the numbers who prefer a deal over increased sanctions are not so very different from those taken last November when the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was being negotiated between the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) and Iran in Geneva. Sixty-four percent of respondents in an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted a week before the Geneva accord said they supported “an agreement in which the United States and other countries would lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder to produce nuclear weapons.” Thirty percent were opposed.
A second poll taken by CNN on the eve of the agreement found 56 percent of respondents in favor of “an interim deal that would ease some …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.” Thirty-nine percent opposed. In that poll, however, there was a much more significant gap between Republican and Democratic respondents than that found in the survey released Tuesday. While 66% of Democrats supported such a deal in the CNN poll; only 45% of Republicans did.
In addition to the questions about a possible nuclear deal, the new survey asked respondents a number of other pertinent questions after they completed the briefings and made their final recommendations on the nuclear negotiations:
- 61% said they favored US cooperation with Iran in dealing with the ongoing crisis in Iraq; 35 percent opposed. There was no meaningful difference in support among Democrats and Republicans.
- 82% said they favored direct talks between the two governments on “issues of mutual concern;” 16% opposed.
- Iran’s image in the US has appeared to improve compared to eight years ago when Kull’s World Public Opinion asked many of the same questions: 19% of respondents said they had either a “very” (2%) or “somewhat” (17%) favorable opinion of the Iranian government. That was up from 12% in 2006. And, while roughly the same percentage (79%) of the public said they held an unfavorable opinion of Iran’s government as in 2006, those who described their view as “very unfavorable” fell from 48% to 31%.
On possible confidence-building bilateral measures, the survey found that:
- 71% of respondents said they favored greater cultural, educational, and sporting exchanges and greater access by journalists of the two countries to the other, while 26% were opposed.
- 55% said they favored more trade; 41% were opposed — a finding that will no doubt be of interest to many US businesses which, according to a new study released Monday by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), have lost out on well over $100 billion in trade with Iran between 1995 and 2012.
- Only 47% of respondents said they favored having more Americans and Iranians visit each other’s countries as tourists. A 50% plurality opposed that option.
- 69% said they favor a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East that includes Israel as well as its Islamic neighbors; only 28% were opposed.
In responding to the individual arguments made in the survey for and against a deal with Iran, Republicans generally tended to be somewhat more hawkish than Democrats, although independents tended to be substantially more so. More significant partisan differences appeared in their opinions about Iran’s government: 40% of Republicans said they held a “very unfavorable view” of Tehran, compared to 24% of Democrats and 27% of Republicans. Perhaps the most striking difference emerged on the questions regarding the compatibility of the Islamic world and the West: while 62% of Republicans said they considered conflict between the two inevitable, only 33% of Democrats agreed with that view.
Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands after world powers reached an interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
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