Why that 60-day review period didn't sink Iran nuclear deal

President Obama picked up enough Senate votes to ensure that the Iran nuclear deal will go through, as new poll signals that the more time people have to weigh the pluses and minuses, the more public support rises.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks before introducing President Obama at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience Conference at Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska. Kerry will send a letter to all members of Congress on Wednesday, Sept. 2, outlining US security commitments to Israel and the Gulf Arab states in light of the Iran nuclear deal.

When Congress gave itself 60 days to review and eventually vote on the Iran nuclear deal reached in July, many supporters worried the long review period could be the kiss of death.

Opponents of the deal would have eight weeks to mount blistering attacks, while members of Congress home for the summer break would face angry voters. Skeptical Democrats – who had the power to sink the deal – would have ample time and opportunity to give in to doubts, the thinking went.

But it now appears that something else happened.

As President Obama received the confirmed support of enough senators this week to ensure that the deal will go through, the two-month review period looks less like a noose and more like a buoy. 

On Wednesday, Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski became the 34th senator to announce support for the Iran deal, ensuring that the GOP-controlled Congress won’t be able to override a presidential veto, if lawmakers vote not to support the deal later this month.

That milestone was reached as a new poll suggested that the more information the American public has about the complex deal that world powers reached with Iran on July 14 – and the more time people have to weigh the accord's pluses and minuses – the more public support rises.

The University of Maryland poll, released Tuesday, is just one piece of evidence suggesting that the review period actually boosted the Iran deal’s prospects, some foreign policy experts say.

“I think what happened is that you had some very adamant opponents of the deal ready to go with big war chests and a big media campaign to sink the deal,” says Lawrence Korb, a defense policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former Pentagon official.

“They came out of the gates and really did a great job for their side from Day 1,” he adds. “But that [mounting public opposition] prompted the supporters to say, ‘Wait a second here, there are good reasons to support this deal,’ and the review period gave them the time to put those arguments out there.”

At first, the anti-deal TV ads that blanketed major markets across the country appeared to be having an impact. Most polls in the wake of the ad campaigns showed support for the deal falling as the summer progressed. That mounting opposition awakened proponents, who responded with TV spots of their own.

But some deal supporters claim it was the public debate over the congressional recess, and not the PR campaigns, that made a difference.

“After a great national debate that has taken place over the past two months, rational argument, solid analysis, and sober reflection have won over wild exaggeration, scaremongering, and a flood of money,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a pro-Israel and pro-peace lobbying group in Washington, in a statement Wednesday after Senator Mikulski announced her support.

“Supporters of the agreement, including J Street, were vastly outspent by opponents,” he added, “but almost every lawmaker who began this debate undecided and was willing to listen to both sides ended up supporting the deal.”

Feeling the wind in their sails, Senate Democrats are now pressing to come up with the 41 votes that could sustain a filibuster and block a “no” vote on the deal – a move that would also avoid forcing Obama to issue an embarrassing veto.

Mr. Korb says he sensed a turning point in the Iran deal’s fortunes, for example, when Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to Republican Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, came out in favor of the deal in a Washington Post op-ed Aug. 23.

“Scowcroft was a key,” he says, “because [his opinion piece] was basically saying, ‘It’s time for a more dignified discussion of this important issue.' ”

For Korb, another key moment came when Obama wrote a lengthy and detailed letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York and other wavering Democrats on Aug. 19, responding to qualms and questions about the deal. The president also participated in a question-and-answer webcast with Jewish leaders last Friday. These efforts to work with skeptics marked a shift from the president's "with us or against us" tone in a strident speech on the Iran deal at American University on Aug. 5, Korb says.

“What it did was show respect for the other side, a recognition that no arms control negotiation has ever been perfect and so naturally there are legitimate concerns about it, and I think that made a difference," he adds.

The University of Maryland poll appears to reinforce the idea that more time and more information equal more public support for the Iran deal.

“What the results suggest is that generally the more information people get [about the deal’s specifics], the more supportive they are – even in the critical part of the sample,” says Steven Kull, director of the school’s Program for Public Consultation, which conducted the poll.

The national survey, which was conducted Aug. 17 to 20, presented registered voters with a briefing on the major critiques of the Iran deal, followed by rebuttals to those critiques. It found 52 percent favoring the deal and 47 percent opposed. When those opposing the deal were presented with a list of alternatives proposed by deal opponents, 3 percent decided that they preferred the deal on the table, raising overall support to 55 percent.

The poll also underscored the deep partisan split over the Iran deal. While 72 percent Democrats supported the deal, only 33 percent Republicans did. At the same time, 61 percent of Independents expressed support. 

Still, the overall numbers marked a departure from other polls this summer, most of which have shown rising opposition to the deal – especially in surveys asking a basic “support or oppose” question while providing little or no context.

Of course, the 52 percent overall-support figure hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement of the deal. In Dr. Kull’s view, the moderate support Americans express after substantial exposure to the Iran deal’s pros and cons suggests a nation settling on the pragmatic view that, while the deal isn’t perfect, it’s better than the alternatives.

“It’s like when you make a deal on a house, and you don’t really like the counteroffer that comes back,” Kull says. “But then you think about the other houses that are available and you don’t like those, so [you] go with the best thing available,” the deal on the table in front of you. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy with it,” he adds, but under the circumstances “you decide it’s the best choice.”

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