Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON: As they prepare for battle over the new deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, the accord’s supporters and foes are calibrating strategies based on their reading of Americans’ conflicted views about the Islamic Republic.

American war-weariness forms a big part of the Obama administration’s campaign for the accord, a preliminary agreement to curb Iran’s disputed nuclear program. Administration officials have said that without a diplomatic deal, the country would be on a “march to war.”

For now, the administration appears to have the upper hand. Many skeptics of the deal, who issued sharp criticism shortly after its announcement, have since muted their words.

Instead of attacking the agreement directly, opponents have pinned their hopes on continued American suspicion of Iran and its leaders. They expect the government in Tehran to fail to meet its obligations under the agreement and are poised to go on the offensive if that happens.

“Critics of the deal are reluctant to attack it too frontally because they realize how popular it is,” said Dylan Williams, legislative director for J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that supports the deal.

Polls suggest that support for the deal is strong now but could easily decline. Americans are deeply reluctant to embark on a new Middle East war. At the same time, however, Americans have consistently held negative views of Iran since the hostage crisis during the Carter administration.

For years, many Americans have said in surveys that they would support military action if that was necessary to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. A June poll by the Pew Research Center found 64 percent support among Americans for such intervention.

Now, however, a Reuters-Ipsos survey released Tuesday showed 44 percent of respondents supported the new accord; 22 percent opposed it. If the deal failed, 49 percent would favor more sanctions, 31 percent wanted more diplomacy, and 20 percent wanted to turn to military force.

“The appetite for military engagement anywhere is very low,” said pollster Julia Clark of Ipsos. After two wars that were far longer and costlier than expected, “we in the public feel burned.”

Even so, Clark said, opinions on the deal could change because Americans are uncertain about its complexity and have negative views about Iran, which has been at odds with the United States since the 1979 revolution. She noted that about one-third of the poll’s respondents weren’t sure how they felt.

The preliminary agreement between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., was announced Sunday in Geneva. It would temporarily ease some of the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in return for a halt to key aspects of the country’s nuclear program.

The deal is intended to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear program. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but officials of many countries believe the effort is aimed at developing at least the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

Opponents of the deal have called for new sanctions, saying that greater pressure could force Iran to yield more. The Obama administration calls that unrealistic and says new sanctions could derail any chance for diplomacy to succeed.

In a videotaped message designed to sell the deal to Congress, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the negotiators had moved to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb “in the most effective way: We did it through diplomacy.”

A number of key lawmakers who have criticized the agreement have said they support additional sanctions but are ready to hold off unless signs emerge of Iran not holding up its part of the deal.