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Americans want a deal with Iran on its nuclear program

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015. Here are his full remarks. (Video: Associated Press)
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Americans have disapproved of President Obama's handling of Iran and do not trust  the nation to be faithful to a deal aimed at curbing its nuclear program. Those views are in line with the message Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted Tuesday during his U.S. visit -- and speech to a joint meeting of Congress--  as nuclear negotiations approach an end-of-March deadline.

But what exactly do Americans want on Iran policy: to strike a deal allowing some nuclear enrichment or ramp up sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to stop entirely? The issue is complex, involving tradeoffs and balancing of risks that are difficult to measure in typical national polls.

Enter this survey released Tuesday by the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation. A randomly sampled Internet panel was asked to read a detailed briefing and history of Iran's nuclear program and current policy issues. To ensure fairness and accuracy, the briefing and arguments were vetted based on conversations with Democratic and Republican staffers on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The core question asked respondents about two policy options. First, the United States could pursue a long-term agreement with Iran that limits enrichment to low levels, allows for intrusive inspections and would gradually ease some sanctions if Iran sticks with the program. The second option is not to negotiate an agreement that allows limited enrichment, but to try to get Iran to stop all uranium enrichment by imposing new sanctions on other countries that do business with Iran. Respondents read three arguments in favor and three opposed to each approach before being asked to choose one.

The poll found a surprisingly bipartisan result. Just over six in 10 (61 percent) favored pursuing a long-term agreement that allowed some nuclear enrichment, including 66 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans. Among independents, 54 percent supported making a deal that allows limited enrichment, while 36 percent favored increasing sanctions in an effort to end the program.

The results were no fluke. They were, in fact, nearly identical to results of a PPC survey last summer asking the same questions; more than six in 10 supported a deal with Iran allowing enrichment, including similar numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

A separate survey in May found that Americans are willing to back up such an agreement with military force, which could embolden U.S. negotiators to push for greater concessions and comfort Israel. Six in 10 respondents said they would authorize a military strike against Iran's nuclear energy facilities, including majorities across party lines, according to a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Although the survey is a great guide to how Americans would act if put in a legislative position, reactions to an actual deal with Iran may be far different -- and less well informed. The interim agreement in place has received wide variance in opinion depending on the poll -- from modest opposition to majority support -- and only time will tell whether provisions for inspection will deter Iran from seeking a nuclear weapon.

But polls do indicate Americans are looking to deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program, and are willing to back it up with the full force of the U.S. military.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.