Early last week, when I wrote that Iran is a tough gap for Israeli and American Jews to abridge, I used the polls available then to explain that “on the one hand” Americans “overwhelmingly support diplomacy and believe that Iran can be ‘contained for now’, yet on the other hand a majority of them still believe that a military attack should be launched if necessary in order ‘to prevent them from producing a nuclear weapon’”.
We have better polls now, which improve our understanding of American public opinion on Iran. In many ways these polls can help us understand why the Obama administration felt that it could easily ignore the opponents of an agreement, stride uninterrupted into the Geneva negotiations and sign the deal (which was reached on Saturday night). One must say: there’s nothing surprising about these polls. They just prove my point- which was also mentioned last week- that Israel failed on Iran, possibly because of a failure “to assess American intentions and sentiments”.
So what do we see in the polls?
CNN asked a long question and received a short and decisive answer. “As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran while that country has nuclear facilities which could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons. Would you favor or oppose an interim deal that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?” To this question, 56% of Americans said they favor an agreement, 39% oppose the agreement, and 5% had no opinion. Republicans were the only political group to slightly oppose the deal – 45% in favor, 51% oppose. Democrats (66%) and Independents (55%) were in favor of the deal.
The Washington Post asked a different question: “Thinking now about the situation with Iran, would you support or oppose an agreement in which the United States and other countries would lift some of their 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 support for this kind of deal is 64% according to this survey (30% oppose).
Interestingly (but again, not surprisingly) the public supports the agreement – presented in this poll in a way that is close to the way the Obama administration would present it – even though it has little confidence that it is going to work. “How confident are you that such an agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?” the pollsters asked. Just 4% are “very” confident, 32% are “somewhat confident”, while 61% in total are “not so confident” (27%) or “not confident at all” (34%). Even among Democrats, the “very confident” group is, well, very small – 5%. 42% are somewhat confident and a plurality- 50%- are in the low confidence groups. In other words, the public wants an agreement, even if Israel’s claim that this is likely to be a bad agreement is correct.
What do we learn from all this?
If you believe that Obama doesn’t follow gut feelings on foreign policy and has the general tendency to go with public opinion on such matters (or to lead it from behind), it was reasonable to assume all along that he is going to sign a deal. Even a relatively bad one.
Consider how all this is viewed from Tehran: If the Iranians assume that the President isn’t going to defy American public opinion, that will surely embolden their negotiating position moving forward to the next six months of talks.
If most Jewish Americans tend to be like most other Democratic Americans, my expectation that many of them will come around to supporting such a deal is also reasonable. That’s the “gap” I was talking about.
If the Jewish American establishment doesn’t like to defy American public opinion when the stakes are high and a clear majority doesn’t support the Israeli view (and it doesn’t, for good reasons), then it is also reasonable to assume that the “lobby” will ultimately be more careful on this issue than some Israelis expect (some organizations might keep fighting for more sanctions, but some have already eased their tone, starting to refrain from calling for more sanctions).