The window for diplomacy is closing

Since the beginning of the year Iran has seen a wave of nationwide protests. They are the largest the country has witnessed since the Green Movement of 2009, which represented a political challenge to the Iranian government. The more recent outbreak is more diffuse, leaderless, and radical – with some chants demanding overthrow of the entire system. Meanwhile, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between Presidents Obama and Rouhani in 2015 has stalled, with a change in attitude from the White House on the deal. As the foment of demonstrations simmers down, what does national opinion portend for Iran’s government in coming days?

On February 2, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative presented the results of a survey of popular opinion across Iran, conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM). Results of the survey, taken in the aftermath of the recent protests across Iran, were presented by Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni of CISSM. Joining him were Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, and Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and publisher of Bourse & Bazaar, an online magazine covering Iranian business affairs. Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative, joined as moderator. (A full recording of the event can be seen here.)

Dr. Mohseni presented the findings of the 103-question survey, compiling the results of 1,002 phone interviews conducted across Iran. Carried out between January 16 and 24, the survey was meant to get a sense of Iranian opinion on politics. CISSM has been conducting a similar survey since 2015. This year’s poll was postponed by a few weeks in order to capture a sense of public opinion on recent protests.

Mohseni’s survey not unexpectedly found increasing levels of discontent with the economy, with a strong majority of Iranians saying the economy is bad (68%, up from 63% in June 2017) and over half saying it is getting worse (58%, up from 50% in June). Iranians are dissatisfied with their government’s handling of the economy, with majorities saying the government should do more to help the poor (73%), control food prices (95%), and compensate victims of failed financial institutions (81%). The highest level of agreement goes to the issue of corruption – Iranians believe nearly unanimously (96%) that the government needs to do more to fight financial and bureaucratic corruption, which is widely understood as a crucial issue for the Iranian economy.

What does this economic dissatisfaction mean for opinion toward the government? Despite their economic woes, the survey reveals that Iranians generally stand with the government of the Islamic Republic. Large majorities (77%) reject demands for a fundamental change in the system or that Iran should be less involved in Iraq and Syria (61%). Iranians are split when it comes to aims in the Middle East: nearly half (49%) say Iran should work toward mutually acceptable solutions to regional problems, while slightly fewer (46%) think Iran should use its power to dominate the region. A strong majority (65%) believes that peaceful protesters should be released from prison, but similar majorities support severe punishment for those who attacked the police (64%) or damaged private property (60%).

The survey elicited detailed information on perception of the JCPOA. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj (present over Skype) cited a number of worrying trends. The data reveal increasing disappointment with the results of the JCPOA agreement, which, despite general approval (55%, down 12 points since June 2017) is widely seen as unfulfilled (93%) because of American blocking of economic opportunities for Iran. Batmanghelidj warned of the “economic roots of new anti-Americanism,” with the data showing rising negative opinion toward the American people (from 26.2% “very unfavorable” in January 2016 to 36.6% today).

While Iranian opinion toward the US government has long been poor (rating 85.4% “very unfavorable” today), Batmanghelidj noted that this negative opinion typically did not affect the largely positive perception in Iran of the American people as distinct from their government. After 2016, that pattern may have shifted. The Iranian public may be in process of turning away from the openness that Rouhani championed back toward an Ahmedinejad-era focus on economic isolationism.

Kelsey Davenport interpreted general support for Iran’s missile program (74% calling it “very important” and 57% insisting it is “not negotiable”) and nuclear development following the JCPOA (75% rating it “very important”) as proof that there is no public support in Iran for further concessions. The international community, she recommended, should focus on enforcing what is restricted under the JCPOA (such as shipping missile components to Houthi fighters in Yemen) rather than looking for larger capitulations (like the full-scale abandonment of the missile program).

Davenport also noted the continuing acceptance of the JCPOA despite lack of faith in American promises (with 64% “not confident at all” that the U.S. would live up to its obligations), recommending that European parties to the deal push forward with their promises to Iran (as 60% of Iranians are “somewhat” or “very confident” they will).

Extrapolating, these numbers portend trouble for both the Iranian and American governments moving forward. The successful negotiation of the JCPOA in 2015 reflected a rare moment when Iranian fatigue with the “resistance economy” overlapped with an American willingness to accept the post-revolution regime. Today that window of overlap may be shrinking. As Mohseni suggested, the philosophy that made the JCPOA possible is in jeopardy, with Iranians taking the message that diplomacy has not brought them the results they were promised. Without a change in stance from the international community soon, we risk watching Iran’s moment of openness pass by.

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