Americans Are Divided — And Slightly Confused — By the Iran Nuclear Deal

Recent polls suggest Americans are at odds over the agreement — even though most people aren't familiar with the details of the highly technical accord.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Jul 29 2015, 10:21am

Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

With about 50 days left for Congress to approve the nuclear agreement with Iran, supporters and opponents of the deal are frantically lobbying on Capitol Hill, exchanging barbs in the press, and making their case to the public.

Over the weekend, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said the deal was tantamount to marching Israel "to the doors of the oven," a reference to the Nazi method of extermination during the Holocaust. Secretary of State John Kerry — the primary US negotiator for the deal — fired back on Tuesday, saying that if Congress rejects the agreement, there would be "no other option" for curbing Iran's nuclear program.

The American public, meanwhile, is sharply divided and slightly confused. The agreement is a highly technical accord negotiated over several years between the US, six other world powers, and Iran to decrease and monitor Iran's nuclear capacity in exchange for a loosening of international sanctions. To the deal's supporters, it's a landmark arms control agreement. To detractors, it's a shoddy plan that gives Iran an economic boost without permanently neutering its nuclear program.

Related: Iran's 'Shadow Commander' Will Lose Some of His Sanctions Under Iran Deal — But There Are Still Plenty

The American public isn't sure what to think. A CNN poll out Tuesday showed a slight edge for the detractors: 52 percent of those polled wanted Congress to reject the deal struck in Vienna earlier this month, while only 44 percent wanted to see it approved. But a poll of registered voters released by the Democrat-affiliated group Public Policy Polling showed 54 percent support the deal. The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed 56 percent support.

'I think people are still making up their minds. I don't think there's a precedent here.'

The contradictory numbers may reflect the fact that most Americans aren't familiar with the agreement itself. The latest Pew poll found that only 35 percent of Americans have heard "a lot" about the deal.

"I think people are still making up their minds," Carroll Doherty, director of research at the Pew Center, told VICE News. Many are struggling to understand — or are simply uninterested in — the details. Doherty couldn't recall conducting polls on an issue of such complexity. "I don't think there's a precedent here," he said.

Still, the technical nature of the issue is matched by the passion among political elites who have lined up on both sides. An alliance of opposition groups — led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — plans to spend $20-$40 million on TV spots in up to 40 different states to sway public opinion against the deal. Just days after the agreement was announced, opponents launched a group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, and declared "a sizable and significant national campaign" to expose "the flaws in the Iran deal." The group lists prominent politicians on its board, including former Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh. 

Related: 'I Wouldn't Let This Guy Buy a Car For Me': Chris Christie Slams Obama on Iran Deal

"They are saturating the airwaves," Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council and a supporter of the deal, told VICE News.

Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran and AIPAC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

On the other side, J Street, a liberal Jewish organization, raised around $2 million to support the deal. The group plans to go "toe-to-toe" with opponents, and recently took out a full page ad in the New York Times supporting the deal. "This is about supporting political over military solutions," J Street's spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum told VICE News.

Though the deal's supporters benefit from the White House bully pulpit, they are still outgunned financially. An analysis by Eli Clifton, an investigative journalist who tracks money in politics, found pro-Iran organizations are being outspent 5-1 by their opponents.

A fundamental challenge for supporters of the deal is overcoming deep public distrust of Iran. "There's been 35 years of mutual demonization — the Iranians have been demonizing the US, and the US is demonizing Iran," Parsi said. 

Public opinion on Iran is well established: The latest polling shows 76 percent of Americans view the country unfavorably. "That's about as low as it goes," Doherty, the public opinion expert with Pew, said.

"For years and years US politicians have said how awful Iran is… Iran represents all that is anti-American," Hooman Majd, a prominent Iranian-American intellectual and author, told VICE News.

Related: Iranian Parliament Reviews Nuclear Deal as North Korea Vows to Keep 'Nukes'

President George W. Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil" alongside Iraq and North Korea shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and the US and Iran have increasingly been on opposite sides of recent conflicts in the Middle East. The public's negative views on Iran have provided fertile ground for the deal's opponents. When Kerry defended the agreement in front of the House on Tuesday, several GOP members of Congress asked him if Iran wanted to "destroy the US." Ed Royce, a Republican from California, called Iran the "largest terror network on Earth."

Proponents of the deal fired back that such deals are, by their very nature, struck with adversaries. "You do not negotiate with your friends, you negotiate with your enemies," Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert with the Atlantic Council, told VICE News.

It's not clear yet if Americans will be persuaded by that argument. 

"Public opinion has yet to coalesce," Doherty said. "It will take some time for people to fully come down on either side." 

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro