January 14, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

At Least in November, A Majority of Americans Backed Interim Agreement with Iran

Broad Support for Temporary Agreement 

News broke recently that the negotiators of Iran and the P5+1 (representing the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) have worked out the details of implementing the Geneva deal to temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program. Public opinion surveys conducted in late 2013 found a majority of Americans supported the interim agreement, but were skeptical that it will be effective in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted November 14-17 reported a two-thirds majority supporting 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 for it to produce nuclear weapons” (64% versus 30% opposed). Yet nearly as many lack confidence (61%) that such an agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons (36% are at least somewhat confident).

Similarly, a November 18-20 CNN/ORC poll found nearly six in ten (56%) Americans favoring an interim agreement 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.” While majorities across the political spectrum agree, there are some differences in degree. While two in three Democrats and a smaller majority of Independents supported the deal, a bare majority of Republicans opposed the deal (see chart below).

An earlier CNN/ORC survey from September 2013 found strong support for direct talks with Iran to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons," echoing findings from The Chicago Council’s 2012 survey. In the Chicago Council poll, two in three (67%) Americans thought the US should be ready to meet and talk with leaders of Iran.

Earlier Polls Show Support for Military Action Depends on What Other Options Are On the Table

Surveys carried out prior to the recent agreement found majority backing for military action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (when only two options were presented- military action or not). Yet a CBS News/New York Times poll showed that Americans think Iran can be contained.  And the 2012 Chicago Council Survey showed that when offered a range of options, Americans favored continued diplomatic efforts and increased sanctions over military action as a way to pressure Iran. When asked about military action, survey responses vary greatly according to the question wording. In a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in May-June 2013, 58 percent favored the United States taking military action against Iran in order to prevent them from producing a nuclear weapon; 37 percent opposed it. In an earlier (March) Pew survey, more than twice as many said “it is more important to prevent Iran from developing weapons, even if it means taking military action” (64%) as said it is more important to “avoid a military conflict even if it means taking military action” (25%).

But Americans are in no rush to employ more muscular approaches. The CBS News/New York Times poll from last spring found that six in ten (59%) Americans said that “Iran is a threat that can be contained for now,” compared to 15 percent who thought it was a threat to the United States that requires military action now. Two in ten (21%) thought  that Iran was not a threat to the United States at that time.

The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that Americans continue to see Iran’s nuclear program as one of the greatest threats to the United States, with 64 percent seeing it as a critical threat. The most preferred approaches to ending this threat were to impose tighter economic sanctions (80%) and continue diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium (79%). A slim majority opposed UN authorization of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear energy facilities (51%), with a substantial minority (45%) supporting this action. A far broader majority (70%) opposed a unilateral strike by the United States if Iran continues to enrich uranium but the Security Council does not authorize a military strike.

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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