POLL: Iranian Public Opinion on Nukes, the U.S., Politics

by Jim Lobe 

A major new poll of Iranian public opinion with important and fascinating results was released here and in Tehran Tuesday and deserves much more attention than it is likely to get (at least in the United States). It’s too extensive, and we at Lobelog have been inundated with too many contributions at the moment, to do the survey justice here, so you will find below a “Summary of Findings.” The summary is interesting in itself, but the longer narrative, as well as the top-line data, is well worth reading for those who want to get a more tangible sense of what people in Iran are thinking about the pending deal and its possible political and economic consequences, as well as other issues that make up the public debate there.

The poll, which was based on telephone interviews with over 1,000 respondents between May 12 and May 28, was conducted by the University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion Research and Iran Poll, an independent, Toronto-based polling group, working with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM), which has worked with the University of Tehran on a number of past surveys of Iranian opinion. Of the total number of interviews, about 15% were conducted from Toronto; the rest from within Iran. The data collected found no remarkable variation in results. Also notable was the fact that CISSM conducted an analysis to see what proportion of the sample systematically provided responses that were in line with the stated positions of the Iranian government. That analysis found that only 9% of respondents provided answers that were fully consistent with the government’s positions; 91% provided at least one response that was directly at odds with positions taken by the state-owned news media.

As you will see in the results, the survey found strong support for a nuclear deal, but that support appears to be contingent on the (mistaken) understanding that the U.S. will lift all sanctions as part of the deal, not just those related to Iran’s nuclear activities, and that economic relief will come relatively quickly. Thus, while 57% of respondents expressed support for a deal under which Iran would substantially limit its program along the lines indicated by the Lausanne agreement, 63% of respondents assume that all U.S. sanctions would eventually be lifted, while only 23% believe that only some sanctions would be eliminated. Fifty-one percent said that unless the U.S. agrees to remove all of its sanctions, Iran should not agree to a deal. Forty-five percent said Tehran should still be prepared to make a deal that removes some U.S. sanctions and all U.N. and E.U. sanctions.

“While there is majority support for continuing to pursue a deal,” said Ebrahim Mohseni, who is a senior analyst at the University of Tehran’s Center and a CISSM research associate, “it is sustained in part by expectations that besides the U.N. and the E.U., the U.S. would also relinquish all its sanctions, that the positive effects of the deal would be felt in tangible ways fairly quickly, and that Iran would continue to develop its civilian nuclear program.” He added that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have “difficulty selling a deal that would significantly deviate from these expectations.” (Indeed, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly demanded in a major speech Tuesday that all U.S. sanctions be lifted as of the signing of a deal, a demand that could further complicate the negotiations.)

In any event, here is the Summary of Findings (for specific percentages on the various issues, you should look at the full report and draw your own conclusions):

1. Iran’s Nuclear Program
Overwhelming majorities of Iranians continue to say that it is very important for Iran to have a nuclear program. The nuclear program is seen as one of Iran’s greatest achievements. A large majority continues to see the program as driven purely by peaceful goals, though one in five see it as being an effort to pursue nuclear weapons. This support for Iran’s nuclear program appears to be driven by a combination of symbolic and economic considerations.  However, while a majority sees the program as being an important way for Iran to stand up to the West, serving Iran’s future energy and medical needs is seen as more important.

2. Views on Nuclear Weapons
A large and growing majority of Iranians express opposition to nuclear weapons in various ways. Two thirds now say that producing nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam. Eight in ten approve of the NPT goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Consistent with these views, Iranians express opposition to chemical weapons, with nine in ten approving of Iran’s decision, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, to not use chemical weapons in response to Iraq’s use of them.

3. Iran – P5+1 Nuclear Deal
Given information about the nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1, a substantial majority favors it and only one in six oppose it. A quarter, though, are undecided or equivocal. Nearly three in four are optimistic that Iran and the P5+1 will arrive at a deal in regard to Iran’s nuclear program. Three in four think the Majlis (Iran’s Parliament) should have a say on a nuclear deal.

4. The Potential Removal of Sanctions
The support for Iran pursuing a deal with the P5+1 appears to rest to some extent on the assumption—held by a large majority—that all sanctions on Iran would be lifted as part of the deal, and there is optimism that the sanctions would in fact be lifted. Approximately half of respondents say Iran should not agree to a deal unless the U.S. lifts all of its sanctions, while nearly as many say Iran should be ready to make a deal even if the U.S. retains some sanctions, provided all UN and EU sanctions are lifted. Among those who believe that all U.S. sanctions would be lifted, support for a deal is nearly two thirds, while among those who assume that the U.S. will retain some sanctions, support is a bare majority. The removal of UN sanctions is seen as more important than the removal of U.S. sanctions.

5. Expectations About Positive Effects of a Deal
Iranians express high expectations that a nuclear deal would result in significant positive effects in the near term. Majorities say they would expect to see, within a year, better access to foreign medicines and medical equipment, significantly more foreign investment, and tangible improvement in living standards.

6. The Sanctions and Iran’s Economy
The sanctions on Iran are overwhelmingly perceived as having a negative impact on the country’s economy and on the lives of ordinary people.  However, views of the economy are fairly sanguine and have been improving. Also, the impact of the sanctions is seen as limited and a lesser factor affecting the economy as compared to domestic mismanagement and corruption.

7. Views of Rouhani
As Iran’s parliamentary elections near, Iran’s President Rouhani is clearly one of the strongest political figures in Iran. Half would prefer to see Rouhani supporters win in the February 2016 parliamentary elections, while one quarter favors his critics. However, Rouhani supporters have high expectations that a deal removing all U.S. sanctions and bringing rapid economic change is going to take place. If a deal is reached that does not meet these expectations, Rouhani could be left politically vulnerable.

In a hypothetical presidential match-up, Rouhani currently does better than former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by two to one. Large majorities say Rouhani has been at least somewhat successful in improving the economic situation, improving Iran’s relations with European countries, and reducing sanctions. Three in four Iranians say that if the negotiations were to fail to produce a final agreement, they would only or mostly blame the P5+1 countries.

8. Relations with the U.S.
Views of the United States, especially the U.S. government, continue to be quite negative. Only four in ten believe that U.S. leaders genuinely believe that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Asked why the U.S. is imposing sanctions on Iran, the most common answers portray the U.S. as seeking to confront and dominate Iran; very few mention concerns about nuclear weapons. However, a slight majority has a positive view of the American people.

If Iran and the P5+1 reach a deal, a large majority believes that the U.S. will still impede other countries from cooperating with Iran, and a slight majority believes that Iran making concessions on the nuclear issue will likely lead the U.S. to seek more concessions. Just one in six believe that concessions would be likely to lead to greater accommodation; however, this number is higher than a year ago.

Large majorities favor various confidence-building measures between Iran and the U.S., including greater trade, which is more widely supported than a year ago. People-to-people confidence-building measures are especially popular. A majority thinks that it is possible for Islam and the West to find common ground.

9. Views of P5+1 Countries
Two thirds say they do not trust the P5+1 countries—however, the minority expressing trust has increased since fall 2014. Views of specific countries vary: large majorities have negative views of the UK and the U.S.; modest majorities have unfavorable views of Russia and France, while views are divided on Germany and China.

10. Views of Regional Actors
A very large majority has an unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia—even slightly more negative than views of the U.S. A slight majority now has an unfavorable view of Turkey, which was not the case a year ago. Large majorities continue to view Syria and Iraq favorably.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other advisers on March 17, 2015, in Lausanne, Switzerland, before resuming negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
Credit: State Department

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. What difference does it make what Iranians think? Isn’t the question of the trustworthiness of the Iranian leaders the cardinal point? And what the leaders of Iran will do in the future?

  2. The survey results is interesting and fairly representative. Not even an authoritarian religious ruling class can and would be indifferent to public opinion. The results are representative of Iranianian national characteristics- optimistic, forgiving,proud and wanting better life. I am surprised no mentions is made of Iranians’ disappointments in Israel’s negative role in the negotiations .

  3. RG: I’d be more worried about what Israeli leaders think since they have their finger on a nuclear trigger. On more than one occasion various Israeli politicians have expressed a desire to bomb (I forget the name) dam as a way of getting rid of those pesky Arabs.

  4. Mr. Ronmac, The name of the dam is Aswan, the name of the politician is Leiberman. Israel had its finger on the trigger in ’73 when little stood between the Egyptian Army and Tel Aviv.
    Israel has experienced the Pharaoh, Haman, the Spanish Inquisition and Hitler. Israel has not and will not start wars unless threatened. As you have experienced in 9/11, the Arabs can be a bit more than pesky.

  5. rg: Why do you keep bringing up 9/11? All water under the bridge. We’re pals with the new and improved “moderate” AQ now. Even Israel is cooperating with AQ in the fight against Assad in Syria. Yes I know you like to bring up 9/11 as a way of scare mongering US public opinion.

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