Will It Play in Persepolis?

New research reveals that Iranians may be more willing to make a nuclear deal with the United States than previously thought.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in more than a decade, the United States and Iran are both pushing hard to resolve their long-standing disagreements about Tehran’s nuclear program. Making that investment in nuclear diplomacy pay off requires bold leadership — and an understanding of public opinion in both countries.

Shortly after President Hassan Rouhani took office, negotiators from Iran and six world powers (the P5+1) agreed on the elements of a solution "to ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful," as the Joint Plan of Action states. But as the Nov. 24 deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal approaches, large gaps remain between the parties on the scope, timing, and duration of an agreement. We can’t ignore the role of public opinion in bridging those gaps: Both President Barack Obama and Rouhani will be more likely to take political risks to reach an agreement if they think that the terms would have broad public support.

To the extent that public opinion in Iran influences policy decisions, it supports the types of transparency and confidence-building measures that Tehran has already taken. However, Iranians do not support the much tighter limitations on nuclear capabilities that some U.S. experts consider necessary to ensure that Iran could not "break out" of an agreement and amass a bomb’s worth of fissile material in less than a year — one metric that U.S. officials have used to quantify whether a deal would be acceptable.

The University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion and the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,037 Iranians this summer to get a sense of just how far the Iranian public was willing to go to seal a deal. Depending on the rest of the agreement, large majorities of respondents were willing to accept a pledge never to produce nuclear weapons (79 percent), the continuation of current international oversight and inspections (76 percent), additional transparency measures (62 percent), and not enriching uranium above 5 percent for the duration of the agreement.

But comparably large majorities staunchly oppose dismantling half of the centrifuges that Iran is currently operating (70 percent) and accepting limits on Iran’s nuclear research activities (75 percent) — concessions that correspond to demands often advanced by former Obama administration officials who remain close to the negotiations.

Many Iranians say sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy (85 percent) and ordinary Iranians (91 percent). However, few believe that the United States would end the nuclear-related sanctions even if Iran accepted those stricter demands (19 percent).

If Rouhani does not have public support for accepting certain demands, would Obama have domestic support for compromises that move toward the Iranian position? Conventional wisdom says he would be hard-pressed to get congressional approval to lift sanctions against Iran even if the breakout criteria were met, especially after the Republican Party won control of the Senate in the recent midterm elections. Although the White House could initially suspend some sanctions by executive order and delay asking Congress to remove legislative sanctions until Iran had complied fully with the next stage of the process, Congress has threatened to impose new sanctions if Iran does not dismantle its nuclear program. But here too, our research suggests that conventional wisdom about how Congress would respond to an agreement may be wrong.

In July, the Center for International and Security Studies and the Program for Public Consultation ran a decision-making simulation in which 748 randomly selected Americans were given a carefully vetted background briefing about the negotiations with Iran. They were then handed arguments drawn from congressional debates presenting them with two options: Respondents could decide to continue seeking a deal that places partial limits on Iran’s nuclear program and increases transparency in return for some sanctions relief, or they could decide to end negotiations and impose more sanctions in a renewed effort to stop Iranian enrichment altogether.

Large majorities of participants found all arguments for and against both options to be at least somewhat persuasive. But when asked which option they would recommend, 61 percent (including 62 percent of the Republicans) chose the compromise deal, while only 35 percent wanted to end negotiations and impose new sanctions by pressuring other countries to cut their economic relations with Iran, in hope of finally persuading Tehran to completely stop all uranium enrichment.

While members of Congress talk tough now about imposing more sanctions or taking military action, this study indicates that their political calculation could change if the P5+1 and Iran successfully conclude an agreement. Would a Republican-controlled Congress really want responsibility for scuttling a deal that placed limits on and increased the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program? The GOP’s alternative would be to convince other countries that supported the compromise deal to punish Iran, and bet that imposing yet another round of sanctions would coerce Tehran into giving up its enrichment program altogether. That’s a risky gamble: Iran responded to previous rounds of sanctions by increasing its nuclear activity.

The prospects for agreement on such a compromise deal would be substantially improved if the P5+1 slightly altered its criteria for success. U.S. officials usually explain that they are trying to make it physically impossible for Iran to accumulate enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon before an enrichment or reprocessing capability could be destroyed. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a recent interview that the United States aims to "close off all pathways to a nuclear weapon, and we have to have enough breakout time in order to be able to guarantee the security of everybody who is concerned about this."

Sometimes, though, U.S. officials describe their objective slightly differently. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, for example, said the goal is to make any effort by Iran to use its nuclear program for non-peaceful purposes "so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success." This standard suggests that the most viable way to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful is to give the international community a mechanism to ensure rapid warning if Iran ever started down a pathway to building a nuclear bomb.

The difference is subtle but important. As the U.S. intelligence community has acknowledged, there is no plausible way to be completely certain Iran has been denied the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon, if Iranian leaders have made a political decision to do so. Short of including access for international inspectors anytime and anywhere — an extreme form of transparency that no country has ever been willing to provide — any agreement would not be enough to convince critics that Iran could not possibly have a covert route to a bomb. A better way to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful is to focus on Iran’s political choices as much as its technical capabilities.

When the United States defines its objectives in terms of denying Iran a breakout capability, it increases Iranian resistance to measures that could be more acceptable if they were framed otherwise — such as increasing access for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and other safeguards to confirm compliance with a deal. For example, only a small minority of Iranians are unconditionally ready to accept limits on Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium (15 percent) and the quantity and quality of its centrifuges (19 and 16 percent, respectively) for an agreed period of time. But those responses change dramatically when the issues are framed as compliance with a comprehensive deal: A plurality of Iranians say that limits on stockpiles and centrifuge numbers could be acceptable depending on the rest of the deal (49 and 46 percent, respectively), and a comparable percentage (49 percent) would support a deal in which Iran reduced its enrichment activities and allowed extensive inspections for 10 years, in return for sanctions relief.

Iran, in other words, may not be able to compromise on its stated desire for a large enrichment program — but it could agree to a very intrusive and intensive IAEA monitoring program to ensure that nuclear material wasn’t being diverted to build a nuclear weapon. Under a deal framed in this way, Iran could decide for itself on the number and type of centrifuges needed to meet "its practical needs," so long as it was willing to accept a corresponding level of safeguards. Many of the ideas under discussion, such as changing the design of the Arak reactor or shipping some low-enriched uranium from Iran to Russia for fabrication into fuel for the Bushehr power plant, also fit well into this approach to a comprehensive solution.

As Iran and the P5+1 approach their deadline, our research contains reasons for optimism that public opinion can sustain an agreement. Both the Iranian and American publics appear ready to support a comprehensive deal that extends the restraints Iran voluntarily implemented during the first stage of the agreement, with additional transparency and confidence-building measures. If negotiators can reach a deal on these terms, hard-liners would be hard-pressed to convince everyone else that the world would be better off without such a deal than with one.

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