by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
With Trump finally poised to announce his decision on the Iran nuclear deal, many policymakers and business leaders are understandably feeling that, even though bad news is expected, there will finally be some clarity on the future of the Iran nuclear deal. But these observers are looking for clarity in the wrong place. To the extent that the White House’s position on the Iran deal will become clear today, the enacting of that policy by the State Department and Treasury will probably remain confused. European stakeholders, meanwhile, will be able to assess how seriously Trump took the preceding months of negotiations. However, after today’s announcement, the case for any further negotiations will remain equivocal.
Against this backdrop, the only place in which clarity is emerging is Iran. As American and European stakeholders listen to Trump’s announcement tonight, they should consider their responses with reference to where political imperatives are most clear. On this point, new polling data from IranPoll, drawing on a nationally representative survey of Iranians conducted between April 13-17 and released on May 8 at a Bourse & Bazaar seminar in Stockholm, offers several lessons.
First, any shades of gray within Trump’s decision on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is largely irrelevant from the standpoint of Iranian public opinion. When asked how confident they are that the “United States will live up to its obligations toward the nuclear agreement,” a resounding 92 percent of respondents indicated that they lacked confidence, up dramatically from 41 percent in September 2015. Iranians consider U.S. violations of the deal to be indisputable. European leaders may be tempted to latch onto any ambiguity in the extent of the U.S. withdrawal—such as the reapplication of sanctions without immediate enforcement—but to do so would be to ignore the clear sentiment of the Iranian public that obligations had not been met even prior to today’s announcement.
Second, Iranian frustrations are leading to calls for drastic action. When asked whether Iran should “retaliate” or “continue to live by the JCPOA” in the event that “the United States takes measures against Iran that are in violation of the JCPOA agreement,” 67 percent of Iranians believe that Iran should retaliate. Just 31 percent believe that Iran should stick with its commitments under the deal. The proportion of Iranians calling for retaliation has risen 8 percent in the past three months, which corresponds precisely to the period in which the E3 launched its attempt to “fix” the deal by placating Trump. The political consequences of that strategy are starkly exhibited in the new polling.
Overall approval of the JCPOA has fallen from 76 percent in August 2015 to just 52 percent in April 2018. President Hassan Rouhani’s own approval rating has fallen from 89 percent to 59 percent in the same period, reflecting the close connection between his political fortunes and those of the nuclear deal. Not suprisingly, Iranian leaders have been flirting with more hardline stances regarding their likely response to Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement.
As an elected leader, Rouhani draws his authority and generates his political capital from the strength of his popular mandate. As that mandate as eroded, the Rouhani administration has exhibited surprising weakness, as evidenced by the inability to forestall the banning of Telegram, the inability to protect cabinet ministers and deputy ministers from smear campaigns, and the difficulty in coordinating a robust response to the currency crisis. Rouhani risks sliding into not just a lame-duck presidency, but a dead-duck presidency.
The fundamental question for Rouhani, and for the European political establishment that now risks losing its most viable political partner in Iran, is to project strength in both messaging and action. In this context, the calls for retaliation, such as renewed enrichment, will be deeply appealing. The only alternative is to support Iranian resilience in the face of American pressure, but also cast resilience as something more than a grudging acceptance of the situation. Political and economic resilience, for Iranian and European actors alike, must be inspired and mobilized by a sense of defiance and moral justification. Europe must provide the Rouhani administration the political license to act defiantly, so long as that definance is channeled constructively.
On this basis, understanding and responding to Trump’s announcement therefore requires hearing first and foremost the voices of the Iranians whom the announcement will impact the most. Calibrating a coordinated European and Iranian response will require foregrounding the clarity of public opinion in Iran.