By Derek Davison (source: LobeLog)
cartoon by Mohsen Zarifian, Iranian daily Ghanoon (April 2015)
A brand-new public opinion poll conducted by IranPoll.com on behalf of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland finds that Iranians have not experienced the economic benefits they expected following the successful implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Consequently, opinion is beginning to turn on the nuclear deal and on its chief Iranian architect, President Hassan Rouhani, who is expected to stand for reelection next year.
The shift in Iranian opinion with respect to the JCPOA has been sudden and sharp. In August 2015 75.5% of Iranians either strongly or somewhat approved of the deal, compared to 62.6% in June 2016. Iranian perceptions of the fairness of the deal have shifted dramatically. Back then, 11.9% agreed that, in the deal, Iran had “made many important concessions” to the P5+1 while 22.6% agreed that the P5+1 had “made many important concessions” to Iran. Now those numbers have turned completely around, with 19% agreeing that Iran made many concessions to the P5+1 but only 5.1% agreeing that the P5+1 made many concessions to Iran. Overall, 27.3% of Iranians now say that their officials negotiated a “bad deal” in the JCPOA, up from only 10% who thought so in a Gallup poll taken last September. The percentage of Iranians who say the JCPOA was a “good deal” has declined from 68% in that Gallup poll to 61.6% today.
The explanation for the JCPOA’s declining popularity in Iran can be largely summed up in one well-worn U.S. political slogan: it’s the economy, stupid. A majority of Iranians (58.6%) say that their economy is either “very” or “somewhat” bad today, easily the highest that figure has been since at least July 2014, according to CISSM’s figures. Where as recently as this March, a majority of Iranians (52.4%) said that economic conditions in Iran were getting better, today 52.6% say they’re either getting worse or are staying the same. Living conditions in Iran “have not improved” as a result of the deal, according to 73.7%. When asked about the nuclear deal’s economic impact, an increasing number of Iranians are pessimistic:
Although Iran’s economy is struggling in part due to continued low oil prices, it has clearly not reaped the immediate benefit from the JCPOA’s sanctions relief that many Iranians seem to have expected (in January, 52.9% of Iranians expected to see significant improvement in their economy within a year, compared with 37.6% today). Some of this is due to the challenges facing foreign companies who may want to do business in Iran. But U.S. policy has also effectively minimized the economic benefits that Iran has been able to reap from the deal. Foreign investors are also reluctant to fully engage with Iran given that some non-nuclear U.S. sanctions have remained in place, particularly in the banking sector. Moreover, Washington has not done enough to clarify to foreign banks how deeply they can engage with Iran before running afoul of these remaining restrictions. One prohibition in particular, barring Iranian banks from trading in U.S. dollars, has undercut much of the benefit Iran could have been expected to receive from the JCPOA’s sanctions relief.
Consequently, 71.8% of Iranians now say they are not very confident or not confident at all that the U.S. will “live up to its obligations toward the nuclear agreement,” a huge increase over the 41% who expressed those sentiments in that September 2015 Gallup poll. Also, 66.1% agree with the statement that “the US has lifted the sanctions it agreed to lift in the JCPOA, but it is finding other ways to keep the negative effects of those sanctions.” Meanwhile, 72.5% say that “the United States is trying to impede” other nations from cooperating with Iran on the development of nuclear reactors and the procurement of nuclear fuel and 74.7% say that “the United States is trying to prevent” other nations from normalizing their trade relations with Iran.
Iranians may also be reacting negatively to the terms of the JCPOA as those become more widely known. In August, only 32.7% of Iranians understood that the terms of the JCPOA obligated Iran to “place some restraints on its nuclear research.” Today, 59.6% are aware that Iran did in fact agree to restraints as part of the accord. Previous CISSM research has shown that Iranians would broadly disapprove of Iran taking steps to limit its nuclear research and/or dismantle uranium enrichment centrifuges, and Tehran agreed to do both under the terms of the JCPOA. There may be more room for the JCPOA’s approval to drop as still more is learned about the deal. CISSM found that 64.1% of Iranians believe that under the agreement the International Atomic Energy Agency “cannot inspect military sites under any conditions,” a belief that does not align with the way U.S. arms control experts read the deal.
Given Iran’s continued economic challenges and the fact that the deal’s terms clearly crossed a few of the Iranian public’s “red lines,” it’s no wonder that the percentage of Iranians who say that the JCPOA was “mostly a victory for Iran” has declined from 36.6% in August to 21.8% today. On the positive side, 55.3% say that the deal was “beneficial for both Iran and the P5+1,” and the number of Iranians who say it was “mostly a victory for the P5+1” has only risen from 17.7% in August to 18.8% today.
Much of this pessimism about the nuclear deal and the Iranian economy appears to be blowing back on Rouhani just as he’s preparing to run for reelection next May. Rouhani remains the most popular political figure in Iran, with 81.9% holding either a very or somewhat favorable opinion of him. But the percentage holding a very favorable view of Rouhani has dropped considerably, from 61.2% in August to 37.8% today. Although the CISSM results show that 45% of those who said the Iranian economy is staying the same or getting worse say that it is doing so for reasons “beyond President Rouhani’s control,” they also show that Rouhani’s margin of victory in a hypothetical 2017 matchup with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sharply declined, from 26.8% (53.4 to 26.6) in May 2015 to only 8.3% (45 to 36.7) today.
Ahmadinejad may not be Rouhani’s toughest hypothetical opponent in next year’s race. Speculation has recently heated up that the commander of Iran’s Quds Force (the “special forces” element of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Qassem Soleimani, might throw his hat into the political arena and attempt a run for president. If he does run, Soleimani will be a far more formidable opponent for Rouhani than Ahmadinejad. For one thing, the general is more popular than the former president (75.5% hold a favorable opinion of Soleimani compared to 65.3% for Ahmadinejad). More importantly, Soleimani’s “very favorable” rating stands at 54.1%, easily the highest for any figure polled by CISSM.
About the Author: Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.
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