If Donald Trump preserves the Iran nuclear deal, that will surprise many Iranians.
That’s one finding of a new poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) & IranPoll.com, which have repeatedly surveyed Iranian public opinion in recent years.
Of 1,000 Iranians polled from Dec. 10-24 last year, a month after Trump’s election, 77.5% were not confident that the United States would live up to its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Only 19% said they believed the United States under Trump would continue to comply with the JCPOA. The figures are a sharp change from the 45% confident and 41% not confident in a poll conducted by CISSM in September 2015, shortly after the successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations. The new poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2%.
During the campaign, Trump harshly criticized the Iran deal. He told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March that the JCPOA was “catastrophic for America, Israel and the whole of the Middle East,” and said, “My first priority is to dismantle this disastrous deal on Iran.”
However, since the election, Trump has scarcely mentioned the agreement. Several of his nominees for senior Cabinet posts, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, as well as Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have suggested that the JCPOA might be reviewed and enforced more stringently, but not scrapped.
Iranian officials, in turn, have said they are not open to changing the agreement, which was reached in difficult and lengthy negotiations with the United States, Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia and codified into international law by the UN Security Council.
In the poll, Iranians said they approved of the JCPOA by a margin of 55.4% to 33.6%, a significant decrease since August 2015 when 75.5% approved and 20.6% disapproved of the deal. A major reason for the decline is Iranian dissatisfaction with economic progress since the agreement came into full implementation a year ago. Indeed, only 35% of those polled in December said that the economy was in good shape; 72.6% said that the economy had not improved despite sanctions relief under the JCPOA.
While a slim majority (51.7%) of Iranians said the United States had lifted nuclear-related sanctions as specified in the deal, they said that the US was finding other ways to keep the negative impact of the sanctions. A large majority — 82.2% — told pollsters that the United States was still trying to prevent other countries from establishing normal ties with Iran.
Middle East and Iran analysts said the poll results are in line with anecdotal evidence of Iranian dissatisfaction with current economic conditions.
“The poll results demonstrate declining Iranian confidence in the JCPOA not because of the agreement itself but rather because many Iranians feel they are not getting the economic benefit they expected — and they believe are owed — from the United States,” Paul Pillar, a former Middle East expert on the National Intelligence Council, told Al-Monitor.
Pillar added, “The pessimism that Iranians express about future prospects for the accord is an unsurprising reflection of much of what members of the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress have been saying about the JCPOA and about finding new ways to inflict economic punishment on Iran.”
Some US critics of the agreement have spoken about trying to renegotiate aspects of the JCPOA to tighten enforcement and extend restrictions on key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program beyond the 10-15 years specified in the deal. Others have pushed for more sanctions against Iran tied to other issues, such as human rights abuses or Iranian missile tests, in the hopes of pushing Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA.
Asked if they would be willing to renegotiate the agreement in return for more relief of US sanctions, only 30% of Iranians polled were in favor while 58.9% said no. A near majority of 48.4% said Iran should react to any US abrogation of the accord by restarting elements of the nuclear program restricted by the JCPOA; 39.1% said Iran should complain to the United Nations.
“The results in the poll regarding renegotiation are further evidence that the notion of being able to get a ‘better deal’ from Iran was always a fantasy,” Pillar said.
Nancy Gallagher, director of CISSM, agreed. She told Al-Monitor, “With the upcoming presidential election in Iran, political pressures on [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani to resist renegotiation will be strong, especially given the public’s perception that the current deal has failed to deliver promised benefits to date.”
Some Iranian commentators believe that the Trump administration seeks to push Iran to violate the agreement. On Jan. 23, the Khorasan newspaper wrote, according to a translation by Mideast Mirror, "While implementing the nuclear deal half-heartedly, Trump will try to increase pressure on Iran in areas such as missile program, human rights and terrorism. It is even likely that more sanctions will be imposed. With this approach, Trump will try to push Iran towards leaving the nuclear agreement.”
The editorial continued that Iran should concentrate “on preventing the rise of any consensus against Iran” and “focus on the disagreement between Trump's administration and Europe, hoping that if one day the nuclear deal is to end prematurely [due to US actions], Europe and Iran will be together. US isolation can seriously challenge and even eliminate the return of sanctions.”
While the Maryland poll revealed Iranian dissatisfaction with the economy, a slight majority of 56.5% was still optimistic that living conditions would improve, 10 points less than in June 2016. Rouhani remained popular, with the support of 68.7% of those surveyed, and was favored to beat Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a possible rival candidate, by 48.5% to 31.8% in upcoming presidential elections.
Ghalibaf, who ran for the presidency four years ago but lost, had an impressive favorability rating of 72.6% in the latest poll. The survey was taken before a catastrophic fire and collapse of the Plasco Building, an iconic Iranian high-rise from the 1960s, on Jan. 19, which has led to calls for Ghalibaf to resign to take responsibility for lax safety standards.