When President Donald Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal last week, the push among Washington’s Iran hawks to scuttle the agreement entirely was already well underway. In their latest maneuver, right-wing hawks have turned to drumming up public support for effectively ditching the accord — or at least creating the impression that there is public support for it.
Over the last week, stories reported by media outlets such as The Hill, Breitbart, Conservative Review, and The Tower purported to show that a strong majority of Americans supported renegotiating the deal. Citing a Harvard-Harris poll — part of a project co-directed by Mark Penn, a pollster and political strategist — the reports said that 70 percent of respondents believed the U.S. should renegotiate the accord, including 85 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats. Although the story briefly went viral on right-wing media outlets and among opponents of the deal, a closer examination of the poll question on which these findings are based raises credibility questions about the results.
“This is a blatantly biased question. It is about as bad as it gets.”
Experts on political polling expressed shock at the framing of the Harvard-Harris poll questions underlying the reports of public opinion. “This is a blatantly biased question,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “It is about as bad as it gets — whoever designed this survey was clearly aiming to produce a finding that the public wants to renegotiate the deal.”
Per the published details of the Harvard-Harris poll, the question on which the results were based was:
Some people say that the Iran nuclear deal is not perfect and the Iranians are building up their nuclear capability secretly, but we should not rock the boat now and just let it all slide along. Others say if Iranians are not compliant we have to call them out on it and push to renegotiate the deal with real verification. What would be your preferred course of action?
1) Push to renegotiate the deal now requesting improved verification mechanisms or
2) Keep the current deal in place and leave the issue alone for now?
This is troubling because it posits a strange choice between two narratives with the same dubious premise. One of the options reads that “some people” are claiming that the Iranian government is building a secret nuclear capability — which would be a brazen violation of the nuclear deal — but suggests keeping the deal anyway. The other option also suggests Iran is not compliant with the deal, and that the accord should be renegotiated to get “real verification.” That is, both courses are based on the assumption that Iran is out of compliance with the deal.
The reality is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which officially monitors compliance, has repeatedly verified that Iran is adhering to the terms of the deal — a position reportedly supported by U.S. intelligence agencies, American military officials, the European Union, and Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment. Trump’s own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gone so far as to begrudgingly admit that Iran is in “technical compliance,” and advocated behind the scenes for Trump to certify the deal, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The nuclear accord, which was struck in July 2015 by Iran and a group of world powers led by the U.S., put strict limits and monitoring on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. The deal was widely considered the top foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, the result of years of sustained negotiations amid decades of enmity between Iran and the U.S. Trump had promised during his campaign to overturn the deal, but waffled on doing so, instead belatedly decertifying the accord and leaving the decision to Congress.
Dritan Nesho, a co-director of the poll who spoke with The Intercept by phone, said that the question about renegotiating the deal was intended as a hypothetical, and that including information about IAEA or U.S. intelligence community verification in the question would have been leading the respondents. In an email earlier in the day, Nesho had written that other questions in the poll asking respondents their opinion about Iran showed that they had generally negative views about the country and that the response to the question about the deal was thus in line with their general distrust of the Iranian regime. “Two thirds believe that in fact Iran is violating the deal, and that is their belief not based on us giving them any information whatsoever,” Nesho wrote. “The responses to this battery of questions is consistent with a deal they think is bad, a regime they do not trust, and a regime they believe is violating it.”
After the initial call, Nesho phoned again to say that he had misspoken. The poll question did not, he now said, address a hypothetical scenario. Instead, Nesho said, despite the IAEA and intelligence community verification that Iran’s was adhering to the technical requirements of the deal, there was a “marketplace of opinions” about Iranian compliance. He cited New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer as an example of someone who had spoken out about Iranian non-compliance. After it was clarified during the call that Schumer had actually not accused Iran of violating the deal — the senator said this month that the deal should be given “time to work,” adding, “The worst things Iran is doing now are not within the nuclear deal but outside of it” — Nesho reverted back to his original stance that the question was indeed hypothetical.
“We know from dozens of reputable polls that Americans believe the deal is working and that they don’t want to see us back on a path to war with Iran.”
Although the poll differed from the results of recent polls by CNN and Morning Consult/Politico showing continued support from a majority of Americans for remaining in the deal, Nesho said that a Quinnipiac University poll of voters this month also showed a majority of Americans opposing the deal.
A former State Department chief of staff under the Obama administration, David Wade, said that the question in the Harvard-Harris poll was geared to sway public opinion on the issue, rather than providing an accurate reading of public sentiment based on the facts of the deal.
“We know from dozens of reputable polls that Americans believe the deal is working and that they don’t want to see us back on a path to war with Iran. Given all the misinformation and partisan attacks on the agreement, its durability in public opinion has been pretty impressive. Penn’s poll is an outlier, and it’s surprising coming from someone who has been at work at the highest levels of his trade,” Wade said. “The survey language itself influences the outcome dramatically.”
“No respondent in their right mind could ever respond favorably about any agreement described that way, detached from the facts,” Wade added. “A pollster of Penn’s caliber knows better.”