The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979.
WASHINGTON — The White House and Iran face an uphill selling job to convince Americans to embrace the interim nuclear pact negotiated with Tehran last month, a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds.
In the survey, taken Tuesday through Sunday, 32% approve of the agreement and 43% disapprove. One in four either refuse to answer or say they don't know enough to have an opinion.
By more than 2-1, 62%-29%, those who have heard something about the accord say Iranian leaders aren't serious about addressing international concerns about their country's nuclear program.
That overwhelming skepticism presumably reflects decades of conflict between the two nations since the Iranian hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981 severed relations and helped defeat President Jimmy Carter's bid for a second term. In November, Tehran agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for some relief from international economic sanctions. Negotiations for a more permanent pact continue.
Winning over Americans is one reason Iran is pursuing an agreement, says Ray Takeyh, a former senior adviser on Iran at the State Department who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Part of their diplomacy is to turn around public opinion in the United States as a means of mitigating against military action," he says. "They think by turning those numbers around, they diminish the possibility of American and Israeli military action."
Public opinion is also a factor for President Obama, says Vali Nasr, a former adviser in the Obama State Department and dean of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
"Getting any kind of deal he arrives at with Iran accepted by Congress and the American public will be his challenge," Nasr says. "You go into a room thinking about what will be salable back home, not only in Iran, not only to the government, but also to the public." That is in "the back of any American negotiator's mind."
Those surveyed split on how Obama is handling Iran: 39% approve, 44% disapprove. That's an improvement from just before the interim accord was announced. In early November, Americans disapproved by 53%-37%. It's a bit lower than his approval ratings on the issue last spring and last year.
Many Americans aren't paying much attention to the issue. About one in four say they have heard a lot about the agreement, but another one in four say they have heard nothing at all. Half say they have heard a little.
The poll of 2,001 adults has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points for most of the questions. Obama's rating on dealing with Iran, asked of 977 adults, has an error margin of 4 points.
Democrats were the most supportive of the agreement: By 50%-27%, they approved. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it — 14% approved, 58% disapproved — and 72% of Tea Party Republicans disapproved. Independents were divided 29%-47%.
Over the weekend, Obama said he could envision a final deal that allowed Iran to enrich nuclear material to produce power — a key point of dispute — with enough regulation to ensure it couldn't use the material to produce a weapon. "I wouldn't say that it's more than 50-50, but we have to try," he said at a forum sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, part of the Brookings Institution.
Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Foreign Relations Committee to defend the agreement.
Iranian state TV reports that a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency inspected Iran's Arak heavy-water production plant Sunday as part of the interim deal.
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