March 31, 2015 | By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura

Partisan Divide among Opinion Leaders, Shared Anxiety among Public about Iran

As the Iranian nuclear talks reach their deadline for an interim agreement, the partisan debate in Washington on Iran has reached new levels of acrimony. The toxic atmosphere has been on full display repeatedly this month, with 47 Senate Republicans writing an open letter to the Iranian government warning that they “will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.” And in case you missed it, the letter followed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to a joint session of Congress. Invited by Republican leaders, a number of Democratic leaders including Vice President Biden boycotted Netanyahu’s appearance. All the while, Republican leaders have been threatening to ratchet up economic sanctions just as the Administration is trying to negotiate the elements for a nuclear agreement.
The results of a 2014 Chicago Council Survey of Foreign Policy Opinion Leaders shows that the partisan nature of the Iran debate reflects deep divisions among Republican and Democratic opinion leaders, including congressional and executive branch staffers, foreign policy experts at think tanks, and leaders from academia, business, and interest groups (total sample included 668 respondents). For Republican opinion leaders, the possibility of an Iranian nuclear program seems to be an existential threat. Of a series of nearly 20 threats presented, the Republican opinion leaders’ top threat was the Iran nuclear program (75% thought it was a critical threat) compared to no more than three in ten Democratic or Independent opinion leaders. [Democratic opinion leaders’ top threat was climate change at 79%, and Independent opinion leaders’ top threat was cyberattacks at 67%].

Reflecting the depth of concern about Iran among Republican leaders in particular, two in three supported the use of US troops to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, compared to 35 percent among Independent opinion leaders and 31 percent among Democratic opinion leaders. Conversely, Republicans alone disapproved of the interim agreement with Iran which would remove some of the international sanctions against Iran if Iran put restraints on its nuclear program (59% of Republican opinion leaders opposed the agreement, while majorities of Democratic and Independent leaders supported the agreement).
Taking a look across opinion leaders, it appears that Republicans are out of step with their partisan counterparts. But when comparisons are made to American public opinion on this issue, the picture shifts. Democratic and Independent viewpoints on Iran seem out of sync, and the Republican position may best reflect public preferences toward addressing Iran.
 Figure 1

Overall, 58 percent of the public believes that Iran is a critical threat to US vital interests, including 66 percent of the Republican public, 58 percent of the Democratic public and 51 percent among the Independent public (Figure 1). In addition, at least two in three average Americans, regardless of political affiliation, favor the use of US troops to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability (Figure 2). This solid public support is especially noteworthy since Americans are much less likely than policy leaders to support the use of US troops for anything beyond humanitarian situations, cases of genocide, and protecting the oil supply. (Opinion leaders generally support the use of force in a variety of scenarios involving the defense of allies).

Figure 2

One area where Republican opinion leaders and the American public diverge is on the interim agreement. Americans seem willing to give the agreement a chance, though Republicans are more divided (52% favor, 45% oppose) than Independents (58% favor) and Democrats (73% favor). 

Figure 3

But if Iranians make a major violation of the agreement, the public along with Republican leaders, would support using force (Figure 4). Other opinion leaders would oppose the use of force in this case; majorities across the board (among public and opinion leaders) support increased diplomatic and economic sanctions if Iran violated the agreement.

 Figure 4

As these survey results show, the dispute between the White House and the Republican Congress is not just partisan posturing. Rather, each party’s position reflects a different aspect of public opinion. Republican political positions reflect public apprehension over Iran’s intentions, while Democratic political positions tap into public approval for the interim agreement. Although Democratic leaders may get some credit if a deal is achieved, they should also begin drafting talking points to address public concerns over the reliability of Iran in meeting and keeping its part of the deal. A recent poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that seven in ten Americans (71%) say the agreement will not make a real difference in preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Chicago Council results suggest that the public may want to keep military force as an option if the agreement unravels.


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.


| By Craig Kafura

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