January 29, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

Attitude Adjusting: New Polls on US Opinion of Iran Agreement

A few weeks ago we reported on American attitudes toward the interim agreement with Iran, but since then we have seen a few new surveys and thought it was time for an update. Especially given President Obama's promise in his State of the Union address to veto a new sanctions bill "that threatens to derail these talks."

Pew Survey

Polls conducted in November found that a majority of Americans supported the agreement. However, a December 3-8 Pew survey found that Americans were more likely to disapprove (43%) than approve (32%) of "the agreement between the United States and Iran on Iran's nuclear program," with 25 percent volunteering that they don't know how they feel. Six in ten (62%) thought Iranian leaders are not serious about "addressing international concerns about their country's nuclear enrichment," similar to skepticism expressed in November polls.

Israel Project Survey - Initial Questions

Yesterday, The Daily Beast reported on a survey sponsored by the Israel Project, a pro-Israel non-profit organization (conducted January 21-23, 2014) on American views of current Iran policy. The highlights included results showing majorities of Americans support Congress moving forward with the new sanctions legislation and want Congress to approve a final deal before sanctions are lifted. Upon closer look, the results from this survey show that a majority of Americans initially support the interim agreement (55%, 37% oppose) as worded below (see here for full survey question wording):

As you may know, the United States and five other world powers recently reached an interim agreement with Iran that would reduce some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for a commitment by Iran to temporarily limit some parts of its nuclear program, while a final agreement is being negotiated. Do you favor or oppose this agreement? [IF FAVOR/OPPOSE] Do you feel that way strongly or not so strongly?

Similar to other polls, two thirds (66%) thought it was unlikely that Iran will live up to and abide by the interim agreement (31% likely).

All good so far.

The survey moves on to ask respondents a series of statements that address whether or not the US should have required Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program before reducing sanctions (57% should have), whether or not the United States should have pushed for greater concessions before agreeing to reduce sanctions (47% each for should have and should not have). Basically, these questions present arguments that have been used publicly by advocates and opponents of the interim agreement, which might move an individual's initial preference on the agreement.   They also highlight several items that were NOT included in the interim agreement, which could perhaps persuade a person to change their initial view.

Israel Project Survey - Questions about Sanctions Bill

After asking how informed respondents are about the sanctions bill (37% heard "nothing at all," 31% "not too much," 22% "some," 9% "a great deal"), the respondents are then asked  a heavily loaded question that results in majority support for the congressional legislation (78% favor, 64% strongly) (wording below; bolding my own):

Just so we are on the same page, there is legislation in the Senate sponsored by 59 Senators from both parties that would trigger new sanctions on Iran if they cheat on the terms of the current interim agreement, fail to negotiate a final deal to eliminate their ability to make nuclear weapons, or if they are found to be involved in a terrorist act against the United States during nuclear talks. Do you favor or oppose this legislation? [IF FAVOR/OPPOSE] Do you feel that way strongly or not so strongly?

At this point, the survey presents the respondents with a series of possible situations that could occur if Iran is able to develop a nuclear weapon, and asked how concerned he or she is about each item, including:

Now I am going to read you a list of things that could happen if Iran is able to develop a nuclear weapon. How concerned are you by each? (% concerned a great deal)
Iran could give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups trying to attack the United States and our allies78%
Iran could use nuclear weapons to attack American troops in the Middle-East75%
Iran is developing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that could enable them to launch a nuclear attack on the United States by 201573%
Allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons could embolden other countries to develop nuclear weapons, triggering an arms race in one of the most dangerous parts of the world71%
A nuclear-armed Iran could launch nuclear weapons against Israel, our closest ally in the region70%
Iran could become a regional superpower that is even harder to deter than it is now66%
Iran would have the capability to menace oil suppliers, causing the price of oil and gasoline to increase, threatening the global economy64%
America’s influence around the world would be undermined58%
Source: The Israel Project. Conducted by The Mellman Group, Inc. on 24 January 2014.

 

Clearly the survey has ceased being neutral well before this point.  After reviewing all the ways that Iran could endanger the US and the world, the questions then turn back to the congressional legislation.  Respondents were shown two statements, one encapsulating points that have been made by the bill's supporters and the other by the bill's opponents.  After reading these paragraphs, 63 percent said they favored the legislation, and 28 percent opposed them. While both paragraphs use some biased language, the one in support of the bill has a few more lively phrases (bolding my own):

Now I am going to read you statement by supporters and opponents of increasing economic pressure against Iran:[ROTATE STATEMENTS]

Supporters of the bipartisan bill say it strengthens diplomacy and increases our chances of peacefully stopping Iran. In fact, it is Congressional sanctions that finally pushed Iran into negotiations, and it is pressure that will keep them there and convince them to compromise. Given Iran’s history of lying about its nuclear program and violating agreements, Iran cannot be trusted. Their threats to walk away from talks are not new and not credible – they need a deal more than we do. Unfortunately, the “interim” agreement has too many loopholes, relieves financial pressure prematurely, and undercuts the leverage we need to end the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Passing legislation laying out sanctions should Iran cheat, or refuse a final agreement, balances the interim deal, supports our diplomacy and will help get a good final deal.

OR

Opponents of the legislation say the interim agreement negotiated between the United States and Iran, and the current diplomatic process to reach a final agreement, is the best way to ensure that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons in the future, and those pushing for more sanctions on Iran are putting the country on a path to war. Part of the agreement states that no new sanctions are to be imposed while the permanent agreement is being negotiated. Therefore, new sanctions now will cause this deal to fall apart and Iran will continue developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the United States risks losing support from our allies who made these sanctions successful. We can always restore and strengthen sanctions against Iran if things change, but we should give this agreement a chance to work first.

Now that you’ve heard arguments on both sides of the issue, do you favor or oppose this legislation triggering new sanctions against Iran? [IF FAVOR/OPPOSE] Do you feel that way strongly or not so strongly?

On the question of whether Congress should approve a final deal before sanctions are lifted, two opposing statements were shown, with a majority (69%) falling on the side of giving Congress approval.  But just before these statements were presented, respondents were asked whether they favor or oppose a series of actions that Iran could be required to take before a final agreement, including many that are outside the scope of the current plan. (If interested for exact wording, see full survey questionnaire).

Bottom Line:  It is true that a majority of Americans distrust Iran, as the Israel Project and several other surveys have shown, and Americans are skeptical about Iran's intention to follow through with the requirements.  It is also true that many Americans disapprove of President Obama's handling of the situation in Iran, as this survey also shows. And at least these questions present some arguments for both sides (though not even-handedly). But once respondents are given information to try to persuade them to change their views one way or another - repeatedly - the survey no longer represents a credible reading of public opinion. Unfortunately biased questions contaminate all the results that follow. The type of survey questionnaire employed for the Israel project is very useful for message testing for a candidate or policy campaign, but these results that focus on the sanctions bill should not be mistaken for an accurate sounding of public opinion.  

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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