by Derek Davison
In spite of the Trump administration’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and reimpose sanctions in an effort to exert “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government, new polling finds that a majority of Iranians still stand by the agreement. The most recent survey in IranPoll’s “State of Iran” polling series, conducted in December, also finds that Iranians are feeling slightly better about their economy, even with those re-imposed U.S. sanctions putting on the squeeze.
Of course, Iran’s economy continues to struggle, and a large majority of Iranians still say that Iran’s “general economic situation” is bad. But that number stood at 71 percent in December, down from 74 percent in the previous State of Iran survey in April, while the number of Iranians who say the economy is good rose from 24 percent in April to 29 percent in December. Around 60 percent of Iranians believe that the economy is getting worse, compared with 64 percent in April, while 33 percent say it’s getting better, up six points from April.
The reason for the improvement in these results (however slight) is unclear. The reintroduction of U.S. sanctions has pushed Iran’s economy into a recession, which is expected to worsen in 2019. There are also signs that the sanctions are hindering Iran’s ability to import basic goods like food and medicine. It may be, however, that the sanctions (which included a surprising number of short-term waivers) made for less of an immediate economic shock than many Iranians were expecting, and so they’re feeling more confident about their ability to ride out the storm. Talk of Europe’s recently unveiled “special projects vehicle,” which will facilitate trade with Iran in those basic goods, may also be slightly improving Iranians’ economic outlook. If the SPV fails, or Iran’s economy weakens significantly in the coming months, these numbers could easily return to April’s levels or worse.
The poll highlights one other important shift in how Iranians are perceiving their economy. In January 2018, 32.1 percent of Iranians highlighted “foreign sanctions and pressures” as the main thing hurting the Iranian economy, against 63.3 percent who identified “domestic economic mismanagement and corruption” as the main problem. In December, those figures had shifted to 36.2 percent and 59.1 percent, respectively. If the goal of the Trump administration’s Iran policy is regime change, or even to “change” the Iranian government’s “behavior,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued, then re-imposing sanctions has hurt, not helped, the effort. Fewer Iranians are blaming their own government for their economic struggles, and more are starting to blame the U.S.
With all of Iran’s economic challenges, it’s somewhat surprising that a majority of Iranians still support the JCPOA, which was supposed to improve Iran’s economy by opening it up to the rest of the world. Even though they’ve never seen the deal’s promised economic benefits (and now, thanks to the Trump administration, likely never will), 51.1 percent of Iranians still either strongly or somewhat back the nuclear accord. That’s the lowest figure IranPoll has yet measured on this question, going back to 2015, and down from 52 percent in April, so there are signs that Iranians are gradually losing patience with the deal.
Indeed, Iranian perceptions of the JCPOA’s impact are continuing to worsen. In December, 81.2 percent said that living conditions have not improved as a result of the deal, up from 79 percent in April. Unsurprisingly, 95.4 percent say that the deal has either had no effect on Iranian relations with the United States or has caused them to worsen, up from 90.2 percent in January 2018. The effect of the Trump administration’s withdrawal here is obvious.
Views of Iran’s European ties showed an even steeper drop, with 41.4 percent saying that the JCPOA has had no effect or has worsened Iran’s relationship with Europe compared with 35.9 percent in January 2018. Only 35.7 percent believe Iran’s relations with Europe have improved a lot or somewhat, compared with 44.8 in January 2018. Iranians are also less optimistic about Europe living up to its JCPOA obligations—43.9 percent are very or somewhat confident that it will, compared with 54 percent in April, and 47.7 are not very or not at all confident, compared with 42 percent in April, and 81.2 percent of Iranians say that the Europeans are “moving slower than they could” in establishing commercial relationships with Iran. Iranians tend not to blame Europe for this, though—85.2 percent of those who say Europe is moving too slow cite pressure from the United States as the cause.
If the Trump administration and Europe are planning on reopening talks with Iran over its civilian nuclear program and/or its missile program, they’ll have to find a way to convince an Iranian public that seems dead set against making concessions in either area. A huge majority of Iranians (89.8 percent) say that developing the country’s nuclear program is either very or somewhat important. That figure is even higher (95.8 percent) for Iran’s missile program. The number of Iranians who believe the missile program is “very important” stood at 76.3 percent in December, up from 73.8 percent in January 2018 and presumably reflective of an Iranian populace that increasingly feels threatened by external foes. Again, if the intention from Washington is to motivate the Iranian people to force their government to change its behavior, these numbers suggest that the opposite is happening.
Hopes of future diplomatic engagement with Iran, perhaps once the Trump administration is no longer in power, are withering along with the JCPOA. When asked about the lesson of the nuclear accord, 72.4 percent of Iranians agree that “the JCPOA experience shows that it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions when negotiating with world powers, because Iran cannot have confidence that if it makes a concession world powers will honor their side of an agreement.” That’s up from 67.4 percent in January 2018 and reflects a troubling outcome of the administration’s Iran policy—a large and growing sentiment among Iranians that diplomacy just isn’t worth the trouble.