Paul Pillar

The Iran Issue and the Exploitation of Ignorance

Polls of American public opinion on the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program have produced widely varying results. One can find polls to support whatever position one would like to portray as the prevailing public view on this issue. Poll results on this subject are especially sensitive to the wording of the question that is asked. This has meant fertile ground for push-polls, in which questions are worded in a way designed to bring about the result that the sponsor of the poll seeks.

High sensitivity to the wording of the specific question a pollster asks reflects low public knowledge of the subject at hand. It means many members of the public have not focused on the subject enough to form a view that is either strong or well-informed, and that the responses of these people are thus easily swayed by the last words they hear from the poll-taker before answering. It is not surprising that this pattern should be true of opinion on the Iranian nuclear agreement, which involves numerous technical matters well beyond the normal cognizance of most Americans.

Low knowledge of the Iranian nuclear topic has prevailed for some time with the American public, even without getting into technical details of the current agreement. Three years ago the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans, in a multiple choice question, what was the assessment of the U.S. intelligence services about Iran's nuclear program—an assessment that has been constant over the last several years and repeatedly expressed publicly in statements and testimony. Only 25 percent of respondents picked the correct answer: “Iran is producing some of the technical ability to build nuclear weapons, but has not decided to produce them or not.” A mere four percent erred in the reassuring direction by choosing “Iran is producing nuclear energy strictly for its energy needs.” A plurality, 48 percent, incorrectly chose “Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so, but does not yet have nuclear weapons.” An additional 18 percent chose “Iran now has nuclear weapons.”

It is easy to see how deficient public knowledge on such a subject undermines support for an agreement such as the one before Congress. If one believes that Iran is intent on finding a way to acquire nuclear weapons—or even worse, as nearly a fifth of respondents believed, that it already has such weapons—that puts the agreement in a very different, and unfavorable, light than if one understands that the agreement is a bargain that trades sanctions relief for Iran committing itself to remain a non-nuclear-weapons state and subjecting itself to restrictions that ensure it remains one. And in general, greater knowledge about the agreement and the issues it entails is associated with support for the agreement, and lesser knowledge is associated with opposition to it.

This pattern has been reflected in polling results that have shown greater public support for the agreement when some explanation of what the agreement is about is offered than when no such explanation is given. The pattern was particularly clear in a recent CNN poll that split the sampled population in two and asked each half a different version of the question about support for the new agreement. One-half was asked a bare-bones version of the question: "As you may know, the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons before it can take effect. Do you think Congress should approve or reject the deal with Iran?" Among these respondents, 41 percent said accept and 56 percent said reject. The question presented to the other half provided just a bit more explanation: "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. Do you favor or oppose an agreement 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?" Here the result was 50 percent saying favor and 46 saying oppose.

To CNN's credit, the second question does not seem to be slanted either for or against the agreement. If one were to get very picky and try to find any such bias, one would be at least as able to see a slant going against the agreement as in favor of it. After all, the question points out that Iran's program includes facilities that "could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons" and that the agreement would "not end [the program] completely". And yet, even the very small amount of explanation yielded significantly more support for the agreement than the other question did, to the extent that the plurality was reversed. (To its discredit, CNN then in its own news coverage focused on the half of the poll result that showed disapproval and ignored the other half.)

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