Many of the arguments Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made in his speech to Congress on Tuesday probably resonated with his American listeners, including the argument that allowing Iran to keep a uranium enrichment capacity poses dangers. As we found in a survey we conducted Feb. 19 to 25, Americans care about many of the considerations that he has been raising. But, even putting aside the partisan nature of Netanyahu’s speech, it is still unlikely that the substance of what he said will move the majority of Americans to oppose making a deal with Iran that would allow it to have a limited uranium enrichment program.
The survey — fielded by GfK among a nationally representative panel of 710 Americans, with a 4 point margin of error — showed that large majorities of respondents found arguments convincing both for and against making a deal, including the kind of arguments made by Netanyahu. But in the end, 61 percent of participants broke in favor of making a deal allowing limited enrichment, provided that there are intrusive inspections, rather than ramping up sanctions in an effort to get Iran to give up all enrichment.
Netanyahu argued forcefully that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would pose an extreme threat. But our survey shows that the question for Americans is not whether there is a threat but how best to respond to it. The argument he made, that more sanctions will lead to a better deal, did prove at least somewhat convincing to many, but in the end they did not think that was the way to go. And his argument that raising higher the requirements for getting a deal — requiring a general improvement in Iranian behavior as well as stopping enrichment — is unlikely to make a lot of headway as Americans do not appear to have a lot of confidence that more sanctions will even stop Iran from enriching.
If the debate about a deal with Iran gets a higher profile in the next weeks, advocates for and against a deal will see heads nodding and get the impression that they are making major headway with their audiences. The U.S. public can see that arguments on both sides of the issue have merit, but, when asked, they do make a clear decision — even in the face of tough challenges.
In the survey we presented respondents with a briefing on the debate surrounding the negotiations with Iran. We also asked them to evaluate a series of 12 strongly stated arguments for and against making a deal and for and against ramping up sanctions. These arguments were fully vetted with congressional staffers from the Democratic and Republican parties and advocates for both positions.
Large majorities, as much as two-thirds of respondents, found all of the arguments at least somewhat convincing. Overall neither position appeared dominant.
When participants were asked whether they could tolerate each option, majorities said they could tolerate either making a deal or ramping up sanctions, though the option of making a deal was tolerable to a larger majority, and the majority grew after evaluating the arguments.
But most significantly, when asked for their final recommendation, making a deal based on limited enrichment was favored not only by 61 percent overall, but also 61 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of Evangelicals, and a plurality (46 to 41 percent) of strong Tea Party sympathizers. Among those who watch Fox News daily, views were divided, with support for the deal rising to 55 percent among those who watch Fox News only two to three times a week. Frequent viewers of Christian broadcasting networks were the exception: They favored more sanctions by 58 percent.
While the survey was taken just before Netanyahu’s speech, it had been widely reported that Netanyahu has opposed a deal. His opposition does not appear to have had an effect on survey respondents. The percentage of participants supporting a deal in this survey was exactly the same (61 percent) as it was when the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) ran the same set of questions in June 2014. Respondents’ attitudes toward the speech may have also dulled any possible effect: 51 percent of all respondents in the current survey thought that it was inappropriate for Netanyahu to speak to Congress without a diplomatic invitation.
The bottom line is that Americans are deeply ambivalent about making a deal. They find convincing the arguments that making a deal is the best option because bombing would just lead Iran to rebuild underground, invading is not a real option, intrusive inspections will give us the ability to know what is going on in time if Iran tries to break out, and Americans would never let another country tell us we have no right to a nuclear energy program.
But they also find persuasive the arguments that the United States should not let Iran defy the U.N. Security Council’s demand that they stop enriching, that limited enrichment will give Iran the ability to refine their enrichment capacities thus positioning them for a breakout and that if the United States dismantles the international sanctions against Iran now it will very difficult to reestablish them if Iran starts cheating.
Arguments in favor of ramping up sanctions to pressure Iran to give up all enrichment are also found convincing by majorities, including the arguments that the sanctions are clearly working as evidenced by Iran’s desire for a deal; that Iranians’ readiness to accept the pain they have endured with sanctions is proof that their real goal is getting nuclear weapons; and that the United States needs to keep the momentum of the sanctions going.
On the other hand, majorities also find convincing the arguments that sanctions have clearly not worked to get Iran to give up enrichment while they have worked to get Iran to accept limits; that the only way to ramp up sanctions is to punish other countries who trade with Iran and this will make these countries angry at the United States; and that if the United States does not follow through when Iran is ready to make a deal we will likely lose the support of our partners, thus undermining the whole sanction regime anyhow.
If the Obama administration does make a deal with Iran in time for the March 24 deadline, Americans are going to be bombarded by all of these arguments as Congress and the pundits jump into the fray, as well as outside voices like Netanyahu’s.
But despite finding all of these arguments persuasive, our research suggests that Americans will not be immobilized by their ambivalence from coming to a conclusion, or simply divide along party lines.
At this point it appears more likely that Americans will come down in favor of a deal. But the fact that Americans are responsive to a wide array of considerations suggests that they will scrutinize the final terms of the deal and be responsive to even subtle considerations. The details will matter. Still, it’s unlikely that there will be trumping arguments one way or the other, including by the leader of a country that is important to many Americans.
Steven Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation and senior research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.