Obama’s Hard Sell on the Iran Deal

The American public has little trust in Tehran and isn’t buying the administration’s authority to ink an agreement without congressional approval.

US President Barack Obama speaks during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 24, 2014. Obama on Wednesday urged Iran to seize the "historic opportunity" of reaching a deal with world powers on its contested nuclear program. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

As American negotiators meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, rush to complete a framework agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program before the U.S. informal deadline of March 31, the U.S. team is facing additional challenges back home. The American public is simply not paying much attention to the issue, and when it is, omens aren’t good: Six-in-ten Americans still don’t trust Iranian leaders to bargain in good faith. Moreover, the public sided with Republicans and some Democrats in Congress in saying they think Congress should have the final authority for approving any nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran.

Negotiators have until June 30 to finalize the technical details of any nuclear agreement. But findings from a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted March 25-29, among 1,500 Americans, suggest that the White House will need to convince the public that Tehran can be trusted to have bargained in good faith and that there is no need for Congress to weigh in on the deal.

Despite the approach of the March 31 negotiating deadline and a concomitant increase in news coverage, just 27 percent of Americans have heard a lot about the negotiations between Washington and Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program; 49 percent have heard a little about them. But nearly a quarter of American adults (24 percent) have heard nothing at all about the talks.

Roughly half (49 percent) of Americans surveyed approve of the U.S. negotiating directly with Iran over the issue of its nukes, while 40 percent disapprove. There is a clear partisan divide over talking to the Iranians. A strong majority of Democrats (62 percent) back the negotiations, compared with 49 percent of independents and just 36 percent of Republicans.

There’s also an education and gender divide. Negotiations are favored by more people with at least a college degree (59 percent) than those with a high school education or less (45 percent), and by more men (54 percent) than women (44 percent).

But support for talking with the Iranians does not mean that the public trusts them to bargain in good faith. Fully 63 percent of those who are aware of the negotiations say they do not believe that the Iranian leaders are serious about addressing international concerns about the country’s nuclear enrichment program. Only 27 percent believe Tehran is serious. That skepticism is largely unchanged from December 2013, the last time Pew Research asked the question.

In the new poll, majorities across most demographic groups say that Iranian leaders are “not serious” about addressing international nuclear concerns. There are age differences, however. About half of those under 30 (48 percent) are skeptical of Iranian leaders, compared with 60 percent or more in older age groups. As might be expected, given congressional Republicans’ criticism of the negotiations, 80 percent of Republicans do not think Tehran is serious, and 64 percent of independents agree. In what may not be reassuring news for the White House, 48 percent of Democrats also think Iranian leaders are not serious about dealing with international nuclear concerns; just 39 percent of Democrats say they are serious.

President Barack Obama has long claimed that the executive branch can begin to implement any deal with Iran without the need for congressional action. The administration’s views on this may be changing, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the public is clear in its view. A majority (62 percent) voice the view that Congress should have the final authority for approval of any nuclear agreement. Just 29 percent believe that the president should have the final say-so.

While such public sentiment will pose a challenge to the White House’s assertion of its own authority, the public has long wanted Congress to have the final say on controversial foreign policy decisions. In September 2013, 61 percent of Americans surveyed believed that Congress should decide whether the United States should conduct military strikes against Syria. In October 2002, in a Gallup/CNN/USA Today survey, more than half (54 percent) of the public thought Congress should decide whether the United States should invade Iraq with ground troops.

As might be expected, 83 percent of Republicans want to ensure that Congress gets to approve an accord, including 93 percent of those who identify with the Tea Party. But the fact that only about half of Democrats (51 percent) say the president should have final say-so over any nuclear deal with Iran serves as a another warning sign for the administration.

The public, however, does favor diplomacy with Iran. A separate Washington Post/ABC News poll, conducted at about the same time as the Pew Research Center poll, found 59 percent in favor an agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing economic sanctions against Tehran. But that survey found widespread doubts over the efficacy of such a deal: Just 37 percent expressed confidence that it would keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Of course, how the public ultimately judges the agreement will depend on what is actually in the final deal. But while Americans support negotiating with the Iranians, they do not trust Iran’s leaders and they want Congress to have the final say on any accord. If there is a deal, the White House has a major selling job ahead.


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