by Derek Davison
Any plans that new U.S. President Donald Trump may have to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) will find little support among the Iranian people, according to a poll conducted last month and released today by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM). When asked about the two concessions that Trump would be most likely to seek as part of a renegotiation, nearly 60 percent of Iranians surveyed said that they believed Tehran should not agree to extend the JCPOA’s duration and just over 70 percent said that Iran should refuse to completely dismantle its uranium enrichment program—even if Trump were to offer additional sanctions relief as an enticement.
President Trump campaigned heavily against the JCPOA in last year’s presidential race, famously calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated,” but he also suggested that he would seek to renegotiate the deal rather than simply walking away from it. He has maintained his opposition to the JCPOA since the election, even though experts in nuclear non-proliferation insist that the deal has succeeded in its aim of blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon should it decide to develop one. At the same time, Trump’s nominee to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, reiterated in her Senate confirmation hearing a preference to renegotiate the deal rather than terminate it.
Trump’s commitment to changing the JCPOA is likely being fueled, in part, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch JCPOA opponent with whom Trump has promised to “consult closely” with respect to “threats posed by Iran.” Like Trump, Netanyahu has maintained his opposition to the JCPOA over the objections of national security experts—in this case, of senior figures in the Israeli intelligence community. Last month, Netanyahu said that he expects to talk with Trump about “various ways” to unravel the JCPOA. Trump may also be responding to anti-Iran sentiment from the Saudi government, whose foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said on Tuesday that Riyadh hopes to work with Trump on “containing Iran”—though the Saudis have suggested that they prefer the nuclear deal to remain in place.
The CISSM poll finds that Iranian feelings toward the JCPOA and the United States continue to ebb. Although a majority of Iranians—55 percent—still approve of the deal, that figure is down substantially from the 75 percent who approved of it in an August 2015 survey and is the lowest percentage CISSM has yet found in support of the deal. Moreover, only 21.3 percent “strongly” approve of the deal, half the number (42.7 percent) who strongly approved of it in August 2015.
The reason for the JCPOA’s declining approval rate is simple: Iranians are frustrated at the continued weakness of Iran’s economy and do not believe that the nuclear deal has created the economic benefit that Iran was promised. Over 63 percent of Iranians classify Iran’s economic situation as “somewhat” or “very” bad, and over 51 percent say that economic conditions in Iran are getting worse. With respect to the JCPOA, nearly 73 percent of Iranians say that living conditions in Iran have not improved as a result of the agreement, and a mere six percent agree with the statement “Iran has received most of the promised benefits and they are making life better for average Iranians.” In contrast, almost 51 percent agreed with the statement “Iran has not received most of the promised benefits.”
On the positive side, just under 57 percent of Iranians are “very” or “somewhat” optimistic that living conditions will improve in the future because of the JCPOA. However, that figure is down substantially from a survey in June of last year, when 66 percent of respondents answered that way.
When it comes to determining why the JCPOA hasn’t improved Iran’s economic situation, Iranians generally agree that the reason is U.S. interference. Over 77 percent say they have little or no confidence that the United States will adhere to its responsibilities under the agreement, and over 90 percent believe that the United States has either not lifted sanctions as required or has lifted the sanctions but is keeping the “negative effects” of the sanctions in place through other means. Over 82 percent believe the U.S. is trying to prevent Iran from normalizing its relations with other nations, also a violation of the nuclear agreement, and a substantial number of respondents believe that European countries are moving slowly to normalize relations with Iran due to American pressure. In general, nearly 76 percent of Iranians have a “somewhat” or “very” unfavorable opinion of the United States.
Given these sentiments, it’s unsurprising that Iranians are generally unwilling to consider renegotiating the JCPOA under American pressure. If they believe that the Obama administration wasn’t upholding its end of the bargain, then there’s no way they’ll believe that the Trump administration, which they see as potentially more hostile to Iran than its predecessor, would do any better. And with Iranian public opinion set against renegotiating, it’s also unsurprising that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that any renegotiation is “unlikely” and has compared the idea of renegotiating to “saying that we should turn a shirt back to cotton.”
Assuming that he runs and that Iran’s Guardian Council doesn’t disqualify him, Rouhani is facing a potentially tough reelection fight in May. CISSM’s poll found that, although over 68 percent of Iranians still regard him in broadly favorable terms, his “very favorable” rating has declined from 61 percent in August 2015 to just over 28 percent today, undoubtedly due to continued weakness in the Iranian economy and related disenchantment over the JCPOA. No major candidate has yet emerged to challenge Rouhani’s reelection—the candidate identified as Rouhani’s main rival in the CISSM poll, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, has not yet said whether he will run—but these numbers illustrate Rouhani’s weakness and help explain his tough talk about the possibility of renegotiating the nuclear deal.
In addition to resistance from Iran, any Trump effort to renegotiate the JCPOA will also likely meet opposition from the other P5+1 nations who were party to the deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The UK’s conservative prime minister, Theresa May, has said that she plans to “defend” the agreement when she has her first meeting with Trump this Friday. The Russian government, with which Trump hopes to rebuild relations, said last month that it would be “unforgiveable” if the JCPOA were to fail. Trump may even find resistance within his own cabinet—new Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is no friend of Iran, is on record saying that the United States must “live up to our word” with respect to the agreement.
Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani