by Derek Davison
Iranians are open to a nuclear settlement along the lines of what their government has already proposed in ongoing negotiations with world powers, according to a survey of Iranian public opinion jointly conducted July 11-17 by the University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research (UTCPOR) and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM). However, their willingness to accept further Iranian concessions for an agreement is limited by the belief that Iran’s nuclear program is important for the country’s future advancement, a sense that Iran should not be singled out on the issue of nuclear power, and deep mistrust of US motives in its dealings with Iran.
With respect to the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, Russia, France, China plus China), the survey gave the more than 1,000 respondents a list of nine hypothetical concessions that Iran could offer toward reaching a deal and asked whether they believed each concession “is acceptable,” “could be acceptable,” or “is not acceptable.” A majority said that four either were or could be acceptable: 1) giving the P5+1 assurances that Iran will never produce a nuclear weapon (79% acceptable); 2) allowing current international inspections to continue (76%); 3) permitting more inspections (62%); and not enriching any uranium above 5% for an agreed-upon period (57%).
Two concessions, however, were deemed unacceptable by the majority: 1) dismantling “about half” of Iran’s currently operating centrifuges (70% unacceptable); and 2) limiting nuclear research (75% unacceptable). Feelings about the remaining three concessions were mixed: limiting stockpiles of enriched uranium for an agreed-upon period (49% acceptable vs. 44% unacceptable), freezing the number of active centrifuges for an agreed-upon period (46% vs. 45%), and not upgrading centrifuges for an agreed-upon period (42% vs. 47%).
While the devil is always in the details, the findings suggest that the Iranian public is open to, or will at least tolerate a deal that puts temporary limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program (even freezing it at current levels, as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently suggested) and that includes substantial international oversight. But they will not accept a deal that rolls back that enrichment program or hinders Iran’s nuclear research.
Feeding into these sentiments is a deep Iranian mistrust of the P5+1’s motives—or really U.S.’s motives—in targeting Iran’s nuclear program in the first place. When asked why America is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, 75% responded agreed with the statement “Iran’s nuclear program is only an excuse and the U.S. is pursuing some other goals.” Asked what those goals are, 53% cited an American desire to “dominate Iran or block its development,” while 11% said the U.S. “is trying to change Iran’s domestic political order.”
The Iranian people seem particularly concerned with the importance of nuclear research to Iran’s scientific development (94% say a peaceful nuclear program is “necessary,” and limiting nuclear research activities is the least popular possible Iranian concession). There could be an opening for a deal along the lines of the one proposed earlier this week by the Arms Control Association, which would allow Iran to continue its nuclear research while delaying the deployment of whatever advances it makes, but the Iranian public seems unlikely to accept the ACA’s requirement that Iran scale back its existing enrichment program.
Iranians also do not trust that the United States will actually follow through on promises to lift sanctions if Iran complies with its obligations under a final agreement—74% believe that America would maintain the sanctions and simply change the rationale behind them.
During a Sept. 17 event to unveil the poll’s findings, the CISSM’s John Steinbruner pointed out that “our prime problem is conveying to [the Iranians], in a credible way, that we do not intend to overthrow the Islamic Republic,” a task that (as he noted) is complicated by the fact that, well, some of “us” actually want to do precisely that.
The data, as former diplomat Hillary Mann Leverett noted, also suggests (in line with what Adnan Tabatabai wrote here in July) that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani does not “need” a nuclear deal to ensure his political future. Study co-author Ebrahim Mohseni reported that, when asked who they would blame most if the nuclear talks fail, 40% of respondents named the US and another 20% cited the P5+1. Only 9% said that they would primarily blame the Iranian government for a failure. And only 28% would place any blame at all on Iranian officials if the talks were to collapse, compared with 59% who would not blame them at all. This suggests that, as Leverett said, “there is no significant constituency in Iran” that would support a nuclear deal concluded entirely on Washington’s terms just for the sake of making a deal.
Moreover, the survey found that only 18% of Iranians expect Rouhani will be “very successful” in concluding a nuclear agreement, and only 14% expect him to be “very successful” in getting economic sanctions against Iran reduced. Yet 85% of Iranians have a favorable opinion of him (51% “very favorable”), and 68% credit him with improving Iran’s economic situation even with most of all the sanctions still in place. When it comes to those sanctions, 85% agree they have had a negative impact on Iran’s economy, but a slight majority, 53% say that the economy is “good,” suggesting that the pain of the sanctions isn’t driving Iranian public opinion. Rouhani’s domestic support appears strong and is unlikely to be heavily affected if the talks fail, since Iranian expectations on that front are not especially high.
Panelists at the CISSM event also emphasized the degree to which Iranian attitudes are dictated by their sense of fairness under international law, and of Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Mohseni noted that there is “a great deal of eagerness [for Iran] to be a cooperative member of the international community,” but not if that membership comes at the cost of Iranian sovereignty or its nuclear rights. Iranian officials have said that they will not accept what they term “nuclear apartheid,” an outcome where Iran’s nuclear program is subject to international scrutiny and requirements that are not placed on other NPT signatories.
Ultimately, the results of the UTCPOR/CISSM survey suggest that the Iranian public will accept some level of extra scrutiny and requirements for a defined period of time, but there are limits to what they will tolerate.