by Jim Lobe
Nearly six months after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 was agreed, seven out of ten Iranians approve of the deal, but only 34% believe the U.S. will comply with its terms, according to a new poll released here Wednesday by the University of Maryland’s Center for International & Security Studies (CISSM).
Conducted on the eve of the JCPOA’s “Implementation Day” last month and roughly eight weeks before critical parliamentary elections in Iran, the survey found that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif enjoy remarkably high approval ratings among the public – 82% and 78%, respectively – although those results were down slightly from a similar poll taken in August, just after the JCPOA was concluded.
Diminishing optimism about the economy – including the speed with which the JCPOA will pay off in providing new investment and employment – and some disappointment with the deal itself ma account for some of that decline, according to Ebrahim Mohseni, the survey’s director.
The poll also found enduring distrust of the United States, although a majority of respondents (53%) said they had either a “very” (13%) or “somewhat” (40%) favorable view of “the American people.” That did not extend to the “U.S. government,” however, for which only one in ten respondents reported a favorable opinion.
As for specific countries “the United States” (rather than the “U.S. government”) ranked eighth (29%) in favorability out of a list of ten, just ahead of the United Kingdom (26%), but far out in front of Saudi Arabia (11%). (One wonders whether Israel would have ranked ahead or behind Saudi Arabia if it had been included on the list.)
The survey (which readers are encouraged to examine in greater detail) was conducted by IranPoll.com between December 29, 2015, and January 15, 2016 (the day before Implementation Day). Some 1,012 adults across the country were interviewed via their landline telephones throughout the country. The sampling margin of error was +/-3.2%.
In terms of the impending elections – the final slates for which have yet to be determined in what is a tortuous and complicated vetting press – nearly six in ten respondents (59%) said they want Rouhani supporters to win. As noted by Mohseni, however, the president’s political base spans a wide spectrum – from conservative (but not reactionary) “principlists” to centrists and even reformists. Only 25% of respondents, on the other hand, said they would prefer “critics of President Rouhani,” a category that is likely to be dominated by hard-liners opposed to the JCPOA or rapprochement with the West.
Both Rouhani and Zarif (who has been the subject of vehement attacks by hard-liners due to his suspected western sympathies) topped a list of 12 political figures on whom respondents were asked to offer “very” or “somewhat” favorable or unfavorable opinions.
Significantly, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleymani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the most visible Iranian military leader in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), ranked third with an overall approval of 73% (and with the highest “very favorable” ranking of 52%), followed by the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Ghalibaf (68%), and Hassan Khomeini (66%), the reform-minded grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, who is currently appealing his disqualification by the Guardian Council to run for a seat on the Assembly of Experts (which will choose the next Supreme Leader). Coming in dead last was Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and favored hard-line candidate in the 2013 presidential election. Unfortunately, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was not included on the list.
Asked what they considered the most important issue that the next Majlis should address, no less than 39% of respondents cited unemployment, while another 28% cited other economic problems. Iran’s foreign relations and international sanctions were cited by 9%, while a paltry 3% cited security problems; 2% non-observance of religion, and 1% a lack of civil liberties. At the same time, 65% of respondents said it was “important” (19% “very,” 46% “somewhat”) that Rouhani “focus on increasing civil liberties in Iran.” And seven in ten respondents (69%) said they felt Iran currently enjoys “just about the right amount of freedom.” The latter finding, noted Paul Pillar, a discussant at the survey’s release at the Wilson, doesn’t exactly correspond with the notion among some of Iran’s critics here that the country is in a “pre-revolutionary state.”
Indeed, the state of the economy in Iran appears to be the average citizen’s major concern at this point. In August, optimism about the country’s economic prospects reached a three-year high when 57% of respondents told pollsters conditions were improving. That fell to 47% in the latest survey. Asked in what areas Rouhani has enjoyed success during his tenure, economic performance rated relatively low. While 80% or more of respondents cited improvements in the country’s security situation and in relations with European countries, but only 64% cited the economy (down from 54% in August), and a mere 37% indicated approval of his efforts to reduce unemployment. According to Mohseni, unemployment was a particular concern of the younger adults interviewed in the survey. (Mohseni also noted that younger respondents showed significantly greater interest in integrating Iran into the global economy.)
On the JCPOA itself, 71% of the respondents approve of the deal (30% “strongly approve”). That is down, however, from 76% in August (43% ‘strongly approved”) due mainly, according to Mohseni, to the increasing understanding by the public that the agreement may not be as favorable to Iran as the government had asserted. In particular, there is a growing realization that not all U.S. sanctions will be lifted and that Washington has not agreed to refrain from possibly imposing new sanctions; that certain kinds of nuclear research will be curbed under the accord; and that international inspectors may under some conditions visit military installations. Indeed, some of those misunderstanding persist, according to the survey results. Pillar observed that that may set the stage for greater disillusionment that could strengthen regime hard-liners.
Similarly, expectations regarding the JCPOA positive impact on the Iranian economy have been tempered over the past six months, according to the survey. They remain high, however – perhaps unrealistically high. Sixty percent of respondent said the deal should yield substantially more foreign investment within the next year; 53% believe the unemployment rate will decline significantly; and 51% believe people should see a “tangible improvement in their economic condition.” Whether these expectations will materialize remains to be seen.
Perceptions of the U.S. and the fight against ISIS are particularly remarkable.
Asked how confident they are about Washington living up to the obligations of the JCPOA, a mere 4% said they were very confident, while 30% said they were “somewhat confident.” No less than 62%, on the other hand, said they lacked confidence of whom 28% said they had none at all. (Mirror imaging, anyone?)
This distrust was illustrated by the answers to a series of follow-up questions in which respondents were asked to predict how Washington would respond to Iran’s compliance. For example, asked whether Tehran’s follow-through on the JCPOA conditions would result in a greater willingness by Washington to compromise in other areas of contention between the two countries, about half of respondents predicted the U.S. will use diplomatic and economic sanctions to extract more concessions from Iran beyond the nuclear field (an increase of 23 points compared to August when goodwill toward Washington apparently was higher). This skepticism also expressed itself in the belief by 75% of respondents that Iran should go slow in fulfilling its commitments to ensure that Washington its allies live up to theirs.
Regarding regional issues and Syria and ISIS, in particular, large majorities appear to favor Iran’s current policy. No less than 98% of respondents said they hold a “very unfavorable opinion” of ISIS. Eight in ten respondents said they approve of the role Iran is playing in Syria; only 13% said they disapprove. Moreover, 90% said they think that Iran is sincere (nearly 70% “very sincere”) when the government it says its overriding mission is fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while only five percent cast doubt on Tehran’s intentions.
When respondents were given arguments for sending Iranian military personnel to Syria — to prevent the rebels from threatening Iran’s interests and security — and against such a deployment — intervention would increase Iran’s enemies in the region and beyond — 63% favored intervention, while 31% opposed. As to aiding Iran’s allies (or ISIS’s foes) in the region, the survey found strong support for such assistance due mainly, according to Mohseni, to fear of the extremist group. Thus, 88% support aid to Kurdish groups; 87% to foreign Shiite groups; 71% to Hezbollah; 70% to Hamas; 66% to Bashar Assad; and 64% to the Houthis in Yemen.
Respondents were also asked to what degree they supported or opposed Iran pursuing a list of possible objectives in Syria. Protecting Shia religious sites was supported by 89%; fighting ISIS (87%); reducing Saudi influence in the region (84%); increasing Iran’s influence (84%); preventing the Syrian conflict from spreading (81%); and strengthening Assad (63%).
Conversely, when asked what was “the most important reason” behind Washington’s involvement in Syria, respondents showed a high degree of skepticism about the U.S. intentions. Fifty-seven percent said the main purpose was increasing U.S. influence in the region; a 43% plurality cited protecting Israel; 39% chose “decreas(ing) Iran’s influence in the region;” 35%, toppling Assad; and 30%, protecting Saudi interests. By contrast, only nine percent said the main reason was to fight ISIS; 6%, to prevent the conflict in Syria from spreading; and 5% said it was to protect Syrian civilians.
Asked how sincere five listed countries were in “countering ISIS,” 90% of respondents said Iran was either “very” (69%) or “somewhat” (21%) sincere. Seven in ten respondents (71%) said Russia was either very or somewhat sincere. On the other hand, only 27% and 26% of respondents said they considered Turkey and the U.S., respectively, either very or somewhat sincere. At 12%, Saudi Arabia was seen as the least sincere.
Hostility toward Riyadh appears to have grown in recent months, according to the poll which was completed just days before the execution by Saudi Arabia of Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr (which inflamed tensions between the two countries and sparked the trashing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran). Nearly eight in ten (79%) of respondents voiced “very” unfavorable opinions of Saudi Arabia. That marked a sharp increase from 59% in another survey conducted last May. An additional 9% said they had “somewhat” unfavorable views in the latest poll. Views of Turkey have also become more unfavorable – from 52% last May to 58% in January.
Of Iran’s P5+1 negotiating partners, majorities of respondents gave favorable views overall of Russia, Germany and China in that order. France received a 44% approval rating, substantially ahead of the U.S. (29%) and the UK (26%).
Despite the evident distrust toward Washington, half of respondents said they either somewhat (28%) or “strongly” (22%) approved of collaborating with Washington to “help the government of Iraq counter ISIS.” But that was down nine points from a high of 59% in August. Similarly, while two-thirds of respondents said relations with Europeans have improved as a result of the JCPOA, only a third said ties to the U.S. have grown closer. And 57% said they expected Iran’s relations with Washington to either stay the same (36%) or worsen (21%) over the next three years.
Photo Credit: ISNA/Mona Hoobehfekr