Commentary Magazine


What the Iran Nuclear Deal Polls are Saying

In the weeks that have elapsed since international negotiators revealed the terms of a nuclear accord with Iran, public opinion surveys have offered commentators and pundits the opportunity to choose their own adventure. Depending on the survey, the American public is either cautiously optimistic about the prospective deal or fatalistic about the West’s limited ability to deter Iran from developing a fissionable device. The polls are also unclear on how Americans want Congress to react to the proposed accord; some suggest that voters believe Congress should ratify the arrangement while others indicate majorities want the federal legislature to reject it. A review of the polls suggests that it’s the pollsters and not the public who are confused. Those surveys that do not try to sell the public on the deal as characterized, often inaccurately, by President Barack Obama’s administration provide a clearer picture of how the citizenry views this “deal.” 

“[T]he more information the pollster provided, the more likely respondents supported the deal,” wrote Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz on Tuesday in a tweet. He directed his followers to the left-leaning explainer site, which has a nasty habit of oversimplifying events in the effort to guide readers toward a preferred liberal conclusion. The insulting implication in Schultz’s contention is that, when voters are not spoon-fed the alleged details of the Iran deal by pollsters, they are not sufficiently informed about its terms. What nauseating condescension. The truth is that the polls that do seek to “inform” the respondent on the terms of the Iran deal have woefully failed in that charge.

The Washington Post and ABC News released the survey that the administration finds most supportive of their case last week. That poll found that a whopping 56 percent of adults favor pursuing a nuclear accord with Iran even though only 35 percent said they were confident that such an arrangement would succeed in its central mission – preventing the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear bomb. How to explain the disparity? Simple. Read the question to which those polled were asked to respond.

“As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have announced a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons,” the question read. “International inspectors would monitor Iran’s facilities, and if Iran is caught breaking the agreement economic sanctions would be imposed again. Do you support or oppose this agreement?”

Why, yes. Who wouldn’t? It’s a rosier picture of a bilateral accord than even that which emerged from preliminary negotiations that yielded the “framework” nuclear agreement in March. There’s only one problem with this question: it essentially asks the public if they like a comforting fable woven by this White House rather than the Iran deal on paper.

At no point are respondents asked if they support Western negotiator’s last-minute cave to Iranian and Russian demands to lift both the international arms and ballistic missile embargos, which, after five and eight years respectively, will leave Iran both wealthier and far better armed. The lifting of those embargos will allow Iran to accelerate its regional campaign of terror, the latest advance in which occurred just this morning when two Bahraini police officers were killed in a “terrorist attack” local authorities are blaming on Tehran. Respondents were not asked for their opinion on the feasibility of “snapback,” which suggests that the international sanctions regime that took decades to build can be reassembled in a moment’s notice despite the likely objections of those firms that reinvest in Iran. Respondents were not asked about that inspection regime, the several-week process that relies on Iranian consent to secure timely access to sensitive sites, or the formerly classified details of the arrangement that allows Iran to choose the samples from the military site at Parchin it will surrender to the IAEA for review. Respondents were not asked if they approve of the P5+1 negotiating secret side deals with Iran that even the legislators who are being asked to ratify this arrangement have not seen. Respondents were not asked about the terms of this deal expiring after 10 or 15 years, leaving Iran a nuclear threshold state that can breakout at a time of its choosing. The Washington Post/ABC News poll asks respondents to weigh in on an Iran deal that does not exist.

What about a survey of American Jews commissioned by the L.A. Jewish Journal? That poll, which has also been embraced by supporters of the Iran deal, purports to show that 49 percent of Americans of Jewish descent support the accord while only 31 percent oppose it. In this way, Iran deal backers can blunt the sentiment emerging from Israeli leaders across the political spectrum that fear for their country’s existence should Iran be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. It suffers from the same shortcomings as does the Washington Post/ABC News poll.

“As you may know, an agreement was reached in which the United States and other countries would lift major 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,” the survey question noted. “Do you support or oppose this agreement, or don’t know enough to say?”

“The US and other countries have reached an agreement to place limits on Iran’s nuclear program in order to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” the democratic firm Public Policy Polling asked respondents. “In exchange for limiting its nuclear program, Iran would receive gradual relief from US and international economic sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency would monitor Iran’s facilities and if Iran was caught breaking the agreement, the current economic sanctions would be imposed again.” 54 percent supported this idealized entente. Only 38 percent remained unthinking and recalcitrant.

“Several world powers, including the United States, have reached an international agreement that will limit Iran’s nuclear activity in return for the lifting of major economic sanctions against Iran,” YouGov’s survey read. “Do you support or oppose this agreement?” 43 percent approved.

You see the pattern.

But not every survey is leading respondents to support the administration. Two recent polls, one from the Pew Research Center and another from CNN/ORC, declined to characterize the deal at all. They found strikingly different results. After asking respondents for their thoughts on the Iran deal as they understood it, they found 48 to 38 percent disapproving. It also found that 81 percent of those surveyed knew “a lot” or “a little” about the agreement. What’s more enlightening, however, is how Pew tackled the distinction between its methods and those of the Washington Post/ABC News.

The different findings on public views of the Iran nuclear agreement in the Washington Post/ABC News and Pew Research Center surveys highlight how question wording – and the information provided in a question – can impact public opinion, particularly on issues where public views are still being shaped and information levels are relatively low. The Pew Research question, which does not describe the agreement, finds lower levels of support than the Post/ABC News question, which details the intention to monitor Iran’s facilities and raises the possibility of re-imposition of sanctions if Iran does not comply.

CNN confirmed Pew’s findings on Tuesday. Without characterizing the terms of the deal, survey respondents were asked if Congress should support it. 44 percent said that it should, but a majority — 52 percent — disagreed.

These polls are all qualitatively different, and their methodologies vary beyond merely question wording. It is clear, however, that pollsters who are not merely seeking to sample public opinion but to shape it can mold the public’s perception of this deal. The White House appears to believe that voters who do not support this deal are simply uninformed, but the opposite condition is far more likely. It’s possible that the public has educated themselves on the terms of this deal, and they don’t like them.

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2 Responses to “What the Iran Nuclear Deal Polls are Saying”

  1. L EDELSTEIN says:

    What ARMS EMBARGO to be lifted in five years? Where do Hamas, Hizballah and the Houthis get their firepower? Importing what they need in the open market? Russian sale of S300 missiles to Iran? In five years or five months?

  2. ELLIOTT GREEN says:

    Noah, what you describe here is just one of the typical problems with public opinion polls. The Jewish Journal Poll with which I am somewhat familiar asked a very misleading question which contained in its premise the assumption that the Iran nuke deal would limit Iran’s nuclear bomb building capacity. That is not just an unsupported assumption. It is in fact the main issue which does not deserve to be assumed in the affirmative. Shame on the Jewish Journal and on Shmuel Rosner and others who promoted this farce as a genuine public opinion poll.

    You always have to be cautious about the premise of any question you answer. Otherwise you can get into the situation of the man who was asked: When did you stop beating your wife? In this classic abusive question, the problem is in the premise which assumes that the man was beating his wife in the past, if not the present. The Jewish Journal and WAPO/ABC News polls in essence ask a question that leads the respondent to the “right” answer.

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