One of the foundations of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran is the assumption that Americans have had enough of conflicts in the Middle East. By seeking to strike a deal with Tehran on its nuclear-weapons program, the administration hopes to eliminate the chance of a confrontation with the Islamist regime on the issue. In order to defeat a campaign for tougher sanctions on Iran last year, Obama labeled critics of his weak interim deal with Iran as “warmongers,” an epithet that is considered to be an all-purpose argument winner in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But are those assumptions correct? According to pollster Frank Luntz, Americans are far more wary of appeasing Iran or allowing it to become a threshold nuclear power than the president and his supporters think.
According to a story in the Times of Israel, the veteran analyst claims a new poll shows that 69 percent of Americans oppose a deal with Iran leaving it with nuclear capabilities. This is significant, because even if we assume that Iran will eventually sign a new nuclear pact rather than just continuing to run out the clock by stalling Western negotiators as they have done for the last year, such a deal in which the Iranians keep their program is exactly what Secretary of State John Kerry is likely to bring home from the talks.
Just as important, the survey showed that huge majorities of Americans believe Iran is not negotiating in good faith and can’t be trusted to abide by any agreement it might sign. The poll also shows that 62 percent believe Iran is an enemy of the U.S.
These numbers should embolden Congress to act now to pass new sanctions that would both strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks as well as to make it clear that a return to a policy of pressure rather than appeasement is the only way to halt the nuclear threat short of using force.
It is true that even if we take these poll numbers into account, there probably isn’t much appetite for a new confrontation with Iran or even much interest in the issue, especially when compared with domestic issues. But the free ride that the president has been enjoying during the last two years as he fecklessly pursued détente with the ayatollahs may not last forever. Rather than going to sleep on foreign policy, the American people are genuinely alarmed about the way the president’s policy of retreat in the Middle East—of which his Iran engagement has been a central plank—has created new crises, facilitated the rise of ISIS, and made the world less safe. Indeed, Luntz’s poll shows that Americans think the world is more dangerous than it was under George W. Bush, a startling result considering that Obama rode into the White House by riding a tide of anger about the Iraq war.
These numbers don’t show that Americans want war with Iran. Nobody and certainly not those calling for tougher sanctions on Iran want that. But it does mean that the belief that the administration can sell any sort of nuclear deal with Iran to the public is misplaced. Americans rightly fear Iran and know that any deal that allows them to become a threshold nuclear power is not something that is compatible with the defense of U.S. security. After the rise of ISIS and the collapse of confidence in Obama’s foreign policy, the administration will have to do more than merely label critics of its Iran policy as warmongers if they wish to prevail.
The debate on Iran is only just beginning. Those who think that it can be squelched have not taken into account the fact that most Americans rightly fear the ayatollahs and don’t want their government to turn a blind eye to a nuclear program that threatens to destabilize the region and plunge the Middle East into even worse turmoil.