Iranian Public May Be Turning More Skeptical, Hostile Toward US

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by Derek Davison and Jim Lobe

The election and subsequent actions of the Trump administration appears to have provoked much greater skepticism, if not hostility, regarding U.S. intentions among the Iranian public, according to a major new poll released here Friday by the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM).

The poll, the latest in a two-year series conducted by CISSM on Iran, found growing support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the so-called P5+1 and Iran, despite the belief by a 63% majority of the 1004 respondents who were interviewed in mid-June that the deal has not yet resulted in hoped-for improvements in the country’s economy.

The poll, which focused particularly on the dynamics of Iran’s May election, also found that some eight in 10 respondents agreed that President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election results more from general approval of his foreign policy and the JCPOA in particular than his performance in improving the economy or upholding the ideals of the Islamic revolution.

With respect to international relations, however, perhaps the most significant findings included growing popular support for the JCPOA and strong opposition to any possible demands by Washington that the deal be renegotiated in ways that could disadvantage Tehran or its ability to defend itself.

Indeed, Iranians do not appear inclined to renegotiate its terms with the Trump administration, nor are they prepared to accept anything that might look like a U.S. violation of the agreement. A large majority—61.6 percent—say that if President Donald Trump attempts to renegotiate the JCPOA, as he has expressed interest in doing, the Iranian government “should not agree” to any increase in the duration of the deal’s limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Most Iranians are similarly uninterested in making additional concessions to Washington in exchange for additional sanctions relief. One of Rouhani’s major campaign promises was to pursue the complete removal of all U.S. and Western sanctions against Iran, but majorities of Iranians say they would reject limiting Iran’s missile program (62.6 percent), recognizing Israel (66.3 percent), ending aid to “groups like the Hezbollah of Lebanon” (59 percent), and ending aid to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria (58 percent) in return for sanctions relief.

The prospects of renegotiation aside, there’s strong reason to believe that the Iranian public already believes the United States is in violation of the nuclear accord. In the June survey, 49.3 percent of Iranians said that new U.S. sanctions related to Iran’s missile development program would be “against the letter and spirit of the JCPOA agreement,” while another 23.7 percent said such sanctions would be “against the spirit” of the deal. The Trump administration announced new sanctions related to Iran’s missile program in mid-July, and is reportedly considering additional penalties in the wake of a new Iranian missile test on Thursday. Moreover, both houses of Congress this week passed a bill that, unless vetoed by Trump, will impose more punishment against Iran over its missile program. The Iranian public has strong views about how their government should handle any perceived U.S. violations of the nuclear deal.

Majority Ready to Abandon Agreement

Perhaps the biggest change in results between the May and June surveys revolved around the question of how Iran should respond to any American violation of the JCPOA. In May, 45.3 percent said that Iran should resume parts of its nuclear program that the deal limited while 43.1 percent said that Iran should continue to abide by the agreement and pursue grievances against the U.S. in an international context. But in June, 55.4 percent of Iranians said that they were in favor of resuming a full-scale nuclear program against 41.4 percent who said that Iran should maintain compliance with the JCPOA.

This point is particularly salient right now, because a recent flurry of activity from the Trump White House suggests that it is preparing to take drastic steps that could trigger some kind of Iranian response. On July 17, the administration certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA’s terms for the second time since Trump took office in January. But reports quickly emerged that President Trump himself had argued vociferously in favor of decertifying Iran. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Trump seemed to suggest that he will not certify Iranian compliance when the issue comes up again in 90 days. Although it is unclear on what basis Trump has decided to take this step, he’s reportedly tasked a group within his White House with coming up with a justification for decertifying.

One step the administration is reportedly about to take involves “testing” the JCPOA by pushing for inspections of sensitive Iranian military sites. Though the administration will need to provide some justification for requesting access to those sites under the terms of the nuclear deal, if it is successful that could challenge the deal’s support among Iranians. As Ebrahim Mohseni, one of the co-authors of the CISSM/IranPoll survey, said at a Friday’s rollout of the report at the Atlantic Council:

The perception of the [nuclear] deal in Iran is somewhat different than the deal itself. People perceive the deal to include all sanctions, not just nuclear-related sanctions. People perceive the deal as blocking any new sanctions in the future. A lot of these misperceptions have been corrected, but there is one that remains, probably because every Iranian official has said “we are not going to do that,” and that’s allowing inspection of Iranian military sites. The perception in Iran is that the deal doesn’t allow inspection of military sites. If that misperception is corrected, I don’t know what the support for the JCPOA would be.

Of course, the poll was conducted June 11-17, shortly after the June 6 terror attacks on the Iranian Parliament and the shrine to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As such, it reflects public attitudes that preceded the Trump administration’s more aggressive statements against Iran of the last few weeks. Mohseni did not speculate on how they may have affected the Iranian public attitudes toward Washington’s intentions or the willingness to renegotiate the JCPOA.

But they are unlikely to help. CISSM’s penultimate survey conducted just before the May 19 elections in Iran, found a distinct lack of confidence in the U.S. to comply with the JCPOA. Nearly three in four respondents in that poll (which accurately predicted the final elections results within two percentage points), said that they were not confident that the U.S. “will live up to the obligations toward the nuclear agreement; only 24% expressed confidence that Washington would.” That was a dramatic change from the 45% plurality that expressed confidence in Washington’s compliance in September 2015. Trump’s latest statements have no doubt cast even greater doubt on Washington’s future compliance.

Despite continued confidence (53%-41%) that the other P5+1 countries would continue to live up to their obligations under the JCPOA, 55% of respondents in the June poll said that they believed that Tehran should retaliate against Washington’s non-compliance by restarting its nuclear program rather than seeking a resolution of the dispute through the United Nations (41%).

Growing Pessimism

According to Paul Pillar, a veteran CIA analyst who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East from 2000 to 2006, the latter finding was “striking.” Although he had previously believed that Iran would continue to comply with the JCPOA while seeking redress through its dispute-resolution mechanism if Washington violated the agreement, the poll results gave him pause.

“This is the political milieu in which Rouhani and the Supreme Leader will have to make decisions,” he told attendees at the Atlantic Council. “You can’t just brush that off. The calculation may be they want to stand up to the Americans, and (this is) how they may do so.” He said he was “extremely pessimistic” about Trump.

“The majority [of Iranian respondents] is right to be very skeptical about this administration,” he added. “When you get to the inspection gambit, most of the public would correctly see it as precisely that—a gambit—part of an effort to try to get Iran to make the first move …or declare the agreement dead.”

Much depends, according to both Pillar and Mohseni, on how the Europeans in the P5+1 respond to any US violation or provocation. If their reaction to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord is any indication, Pillar said, the Europeans may very well stick to the JCPOA and leave Washington Isolated.

Significant hostility toward Washington was made evident by some other findings in the latest poll. Asked, for example, who they thought was behind the June 7 terror attacks, 52% named the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which took credit for the attacks, but nearly one in five respondents (19%) named the United States. Another 17% named Saudi Arabia. Sixty-one percent of respondents said it was “very likely” that the U.S. “provided guidance or support for the perpetrators”—just behind Saudi Arabia (67%) and Israel (65%).

In the wake of the terror attacks, two thirds of respondents (68%) said that Iran should increase its support of groups fighting IS—that was up from 56% last December. But 55% said that they would disapprove of “collaborating with” the US to help the government of Iraq fight IS. In CISSM’s August 2015 poll, 59% said that Tehran should collaborate with Washington if fighting IS in Iraq.

Asked their views about each of the P5+1 countries, 60% of respondents said that they held “very unfavorable views” of the United States, the worst ratings of all six countries. Of the six, China, Russia, and Germany were seen most favorably in that order.

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Derek Davison

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.

One Comment

  1. It needs to be understood that the JCPOA is not a treaty, and the JCPOA contains no provisions for ‘withdrawal’. The JCPOA is an intergovernmental agreement between six governments and the European Commission.

    The ‘JCPOA’ was codified in international law by the UN Security Council on July 20, 2015 in its resolution S/2231, which incorporates JCPOA as Annex A. UN Security Council Resolution S/2231 is the controlling legal document for the Iran nuclear case. Withdrawal from Security Council Resolution S/2231 is not an option for the U.S. Administration; only a new Security Council resolution can modify or revoke S/2231.

    Neither the U.S. President nor any other head of State can make a decision on ‘nonperformance of commitments’ of a State accepted under UN Security Council Resolution S/2231. A question raised about ‘nonperformance of commitments’ would become a matter for UN Security Council consideration. Since in the UN Security Council, China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. hold veto power, no UN Security Council action against any State for nonperformance under S/2231 can be expected.

    Regarding “pushing for inspections to sensitive military sites”, please read JCPOA Annex I, Section Q, in conjunction with Annex V – Joint Commission. The fundamental verification and monitoring role has been given to the IAEA by UN Security Council in S/2231. Requests to Iran for access can come only from IAEA concerns. Section Q defines a process for access involving first IAEA and Iran, and, if necessary, then the Joint Commission, consisting of the 8 JCPOA participants with the EU High Commissioner as Coordinator. An attempt by the U.S. to ‘force’ IAEA to push for access to a set of ‘sensitive military sites’ in Iran’ – to attempt to override the independence and integrity of the IAEA — can be predicted to result in a very big battle in the IAEA Board of Governors, with unforeseeable consequences.

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