Har­vard-har­ris poll on Iran deal used ‘bla­tantly bi­ased ques­tion’

Iran Daily - - National - By Mur­taza Hus­sain*

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 US 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.

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.”

Ac­cord­ing to 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 US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, and the Euro­pean Union. 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 US, put 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 US. 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 US 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 coun­try.

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 was ad­her­ing to the tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments of the deal, there was a “mar­ket­place of opin­ions” about Ira­nian com­pli­ance. He cited New York Demo­cratic Sen­a­tor 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.

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.”

* Mur­taza Hus­sain is a jour­nal­ist whose work fo­cuses on na­tional se­cu­rity, for­eign pol­icy and hu­man rights.

Source: The In­ter­cept

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