Misreading Public Opinion on P5+1 Nuclear Negotiations With Iran

Excellent vivid images of flags for you. With the texture of fabric at 100 percent view.
Excellent vivid images of flags for you. With the texture of fabric at 100 percent view.

As the P5+1 and Iran negotiate over the future of Iran's nuclear program, some have begun to argue that the Iranian people are so supportive of reaching a deal that the Iranian government would face severe public opposition if it does not come to an agreement with world powers. We also see commentaries inside Iran arguing that not only President Obama's legacy, but also the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election hinges on whether or not Obama succeeds in securing a deal with Iran. Neither of these positions are supported by existing opinion polls from Iran and the United States.

While it is true that the Iranian people do support reaching a deal along the lines of the Lausanne framework, polls from Iran clearly suggest that much of the support rests on a perception, held by majorities of the Iranian people, that Iran will continue to develop its nuclear program -- albeit under a more intrusive international inspection regime -- and that Iran's conditions regarding the scope and pace of sanctions relief will be met. If these conditions are not met and the negotiations fail, the polling suggests that Iranians would more likely blame the P5+1 than Iran.

In a recent poll of the Iranian people, conducted jointly by the University of Maryland, University of Tehran, and IranPoll.com in May 12-28, a clear majority (57 percent) express support for a deal under which Iran, for a number of years, would limit its centrifuges and nuclear stockpile to the level needed for nuclear energy and accept more extensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in return for the P5+1 accepting Iran to enrich uranium, lifting economic sanctions, and expanding nuclear cooperation with Iran.

However, the same poll also shows that 62 percent of Iranians believe that the deal will result in the termination of all U.S. sanctions on Iran, not just those related to Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, majorities of Iranians are assuming that the sanctions are going to be lifted so precipitously that they would see, within a year, significantly more foreign investment (62 percent) and tangible improvement in living standards (55 percent). Importantly, those who have more moderated expectations are also significantly less likely to support the deal, and 51 percent of Iranians say that "unless the U.S. agrees to remove all of its sanctions, Iran should not agree to a deal."

U.S. public opinion is also more nuanced than often portrayed. While polls suggest that a clear bipartisan majority of Americans favor reaching a deal with Iran, that support too rests on certain expectations. If these expectations are not met and the negotiations fail, the American people too are unlikely to blame their own leadership.

According to a study conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, 61 percent of Americans support an agreement that would limit Iran's enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Only 36 percent of Americans support ending the current negotiations and increasing sanctions in an effort to get Iran to stop all uranium enrichment. Other polls show similar levels of support for reaching a deal.

The same polls of the American people, however, show that a solid majority (63 percent) of Americans believe that Iran's nuclear program is a "major threat" to the United States and 68 percent think that Iran is unlikely to really curtail its nuclear program and not develop atomic weapons. Therefore, the support of the American people for the deal rests on the assumption that the deal will impose adequate restrictions on the program and require intrusive enough inspections that would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons if it ever decided to go down that path.

If it proved necessary, President Obama might well benefit politically from refusing to accept a deal that falls short of what is required to ensure that Iran's nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful. Likewise, contrary to what some have claimed, resisting a deal that is too far from the expectations of the Iranian people might well make President Rouhani more popular, not less.

As the world powers negotiate with Iran, they should constantly remind themselves that the Iranian government has not come to the negotiating table to discuss the terms of its surrender. They are at the negotiating table because they believe Iran's national interests could be better served under a win-win arrangement. Likewise, Iranian negotiators must realize that Iran's nuclear program is seen at a threat by major powers and they are unlikely to accept a deal that does not effectively alleviate their concerns. If either side misperceives these realities, we are likely to see this and other deadlines pass, as did the previous ones, with significant gaps remaining between the P5+1 and Iran on what constitutes a "good deal" on which all could agree.