Iran deal: Why don't Americans like it?

Poll: Majority of Americans want Iran deal rejected
Poll: Majority of Americans want Iran deal rejected

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    Poll: Majority of Americans want Iran deal rejected

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Poll: Majority of Americans want Iran deal rejected 01:16

Story highlights

  • New CNN poll suggests U.S. public skeptical of Iran deal
  • Aaron Miller: Iran deal is a historic enterprise

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)I don't read polls for a living, and certainly don't want to compete with those who do. But I was intrigued by a new CNN poll that found a majority of Americans in favor of Congress rejecting the recently negotiated nuclear deal with Iran.

To be sure this is one poll; and others have reached very different conclusions. But regardless of whether you're for, against or somewhere in between, the Iran deal is a historic enterprise. Why then would Americans want to be skeptical or oppose it?
Here are some possibilities:

    The agreement is too complicated

    I doubt that many folks have read the 100 plus page text or the five detailed annexes, let alone followed the tick tock over the classified side agreements. The point is that the deal -- or what's in the four corners of the accord -- is complicated and can test even those who follow the issue closely. Interestingly, those polls that ask more detailed questions, such as did you know there was intrusive monitoring or snap back sanctions to punish Iranians, should they cheat, seem to get more positive reactions.
    Aaron David Miller
    There's also the matter of how the Obama administration is selling the deal. If the most effective talking point is that there's no alternative to this agreement, that's hardly the most compelling way to sell it, particularly with a party that many Americans don't trust or believe will uphold their end of the bargain.

    This isn't a peace treaty

    And that gets to the question of the public's skepticism generally about Iran and whether or not Iran would uphold its end of the agreement. An earlier CNN poll, in June, found a full two-thirds of those polled skeptical that an agreement could be reached that would prevent Iran from getting a nuke. And post-agreement skepticism and mistrust remains high. Both Pew and Washington Post/ABC polls found majorities skeptical that Iran could be trusted to deliver on their commitments -- and that the agreement would actually work.
    Such skepticism is hardly surprising, partly because it's based on negative attitudes toward Iran that have been building since the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis. A Gallup poll earlier this year found only 11% of Americans surveyed had a favorable opinion of Iran -- the lowest percentage of 22 countries, including Syrian, Russia and North Korea.
    Indeed, if the Iran story were filled with heroic acts of peacemaking -- with pictures to highlight historic breakthroughs and handshakes, such as the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty -- there might be a much more uniformly positive reaction. But President Obama is -- fairly or not -- a polarizing figure. And the Iranian mullahs are hardly poster children for pro-American sensibilities.

    Don't like Obama, don't like the Iran deal

    Here's a shocker for you: The partisan reaction to the agreement is sharp. The CNN poll found 66% of Republicans and 55% of independents saying Congress ought to reject it, compared with 61% of Democrats saying the opposite. The reality is the easiest way to determine where someone stands on the Iran deal is where they stand on the President. Indeed, the groups that tended to agree with the accord were almost identical to those that on balance liked the job Obama has been doing as president. "The New York Times" reported that "black, Democratic, liberal and younger voters were generally for the deal, while white, Republican, conservative and older voters were more likely to be opposed." It concluded that 82% of the variation in support for the Iran deal in 18 subgroups can be understood just by knowing what Obama's job approval rating was in each group.

    Does public opinion matter?

    With Congress about to go into recess and lawmakers returning to home districts, you might think that representatives and senators based on some of the polls will face a tsunami of negative reaction about the deal. And they well might. Even though public opinion on the deal appears fluid, the partisan gap on the issue seems destined to produce an intense Republican vs. Democrats battle. If the administration has the votes to sustain a presidential veto, the agreement will go through. And having not taken Congress' role all that seriously in the Iranian nuclear diplomacy, the administration isn't likely to be constrained by a few public opinion polls.
    At the end of the day, perhaps the most painful reality is that on an issue so consequential to U.S. foreign policy, there is likely to be no real political consensus. But then again, give the current state of our politics, why should anyone be surprised by that?