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Poll: Iranians support nuke deal but no further concessions

The survey results suggest that the Biden administration doesn't have much time to save the JCPOA.

Reporting | Middle East

Most Iranians favor resuming full compliance with the 2015 international nuclear deal but only if the United States returns to the agreement and meets its obligations first or at the same time, according to a phone poll of Iranians.

The Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and the independent Toronto-based agency IranPoll surveyed more than one thousand Iranians by phone conducted between January 26 and February 6.

The poll found that half of respondents said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” approved of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, down from the more than 75 percent who said they supported the deal when it was concluded nearly five years ago. And while 58 percent said they expected Washington to rejoin the agreement, 60 percent said they don’t believe that Washington will fully comply with its terms.

“The Biden administration needs to rebuild Iranian confidence that the United States will keep commitments it has already made before Iran’s leaders will have enough political space to consider a more ambitious agreement,” said Nancy Gallagher, CISSM’s director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, in a press release.

The survey, the twelfth conducted by the two organizations on Iranian public opinion since 2014, also showed a general hardening attitudes ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June.

Favorable ratings for President Hassan Rouhani have fallen dramatically over the last six years; 61 percent of respondents in the August 2015 poll — that is, immediately after the JCPOA was concluded — said they had “very favorable” views of Rouhani. Today, that percentage is only 7.6. More hardline conservative politicians are currently preferred to succeed Rouhani.

Under the JCPOA, six international powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia — agreed to lift sanctions on the Iranian economy if Iran scaled back its nuclear program and permitted far-reaching international inspections.

The Trump administration left the deal in 2018, imposing “super maximum economic pressure” on Iran while demanding a “better deal.” Iran ramped up its own nuclear activities in response one year later, exceeding some of the uranium enrichment limits prescribed by the deal while promising to roll back all of its recent advances if and when Washington rejoined the accord and complied with its requirements.

For its part, the Biden administration has said it intends to rejoin the JCPOA while also suggesting that it expected Iran to make the first move.

“It is Iran that is isolated diplomatically now, not the United States, and the ball is in their court,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a Sunday interview with CBS News

While only half of respondents said they still hold a favorable view of the JCPOA,  88 percent said they would support returning to compliance if the United States does so first. Only 31 percent percent supported returning before the United States, and 55 percent supported both sides returning at the same time.

Iran’s parliament late last year voted to reduce international inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites and further exceed the JCPOA’s limits on uranium enrichment if Washington failed to lift sanctions by February 21, and the government partially implemented the law on Sunday. More than 70  percent of respondents said they supported the law even if its implementation would make it less likely that sanctions would be lifted.

The Biden administration last week offered to resume talks with its JCPOA partners and Iran “to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program” and took two other largely symbolic steps, including easing travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats and withdrawing a Trump effort at the United Nations to “snap back” pre-JCPOA multilateral sanctions, designed to show good will.

In addition to suggesting that Iran must take the first step toward compliance, Biden’s advisers have vowed to “lengthen and strengthen” the JCPOA and insist on new negotiations that would limit Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for regional allies, such as Syria, and non-state actors, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi insurgency.

But respondents in the new survey broadly opposed making additional concessions beyond the JCPOA. Remarkably, two thirds of respondents said they would oppose starting negotiations on missiles and Iran’s regional activities after Washington rejoins the JCPOA even if such a comprehensive agreement “could include lifting all current sanctions on Iran.”

A similar percentage said they believed the ballistic missile program “decreases the likelihood of other countries attacking Iran,” and larger majorities opposed ending missile testing or limiting their range.

And while Iranian protesters have questioned why their government spends so much blood and treasure on foreign wars, the poll found that nearly 90 percent of respondents believe that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ activities abroad have made Iran more secure, with 57 percent claiming that these activities made Iran “a lot” more secure.

Fifty-six percent said that pulling out of Iraq and Syria would “make the United States rely on pressures and sanctions to extract more concessions from Iran in other areas.”

At the same time, the poll found solid support for diplomacy with other Middle Eastern powers. A plurality said both that Iran should expand talks with neighboring states and that it should use its influence to push for a diplomatic solution to the war in Yemen. Four of five respondents said that Iranian policy in Iraq should equally benefit Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, while 47 percent said that a deal to restrict all exports of advanced military technology in the Middle East is or could be acceptable.

The survey asked respondents a series of questions about steps the Biden administration could take that would be “meaningful” in terms of providing the foundation for broader negotiations. Four in five respondents said reversing the Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s central bank as a terrorist organization — a move that made it far more difficult for Iranians to obtain food and medicine from abroad — would be “very meaningful.”

Seven in ten said “condemn[ing] the assassination of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as a violation of internationa law” would fall into the same category.

Nearly two-thirds cited full U.S. adherence to the JCPOA, and over half of respondents said lifting the U.S. veto on a $5 billion loan by the International Monetary Fund to Iran to deal with the COVID pandemic — a step that is reportedly being seriously considered by the administration — would be “very meaningful.”

In terms of the Iranian political situation, the survey’s findings suggest that the Biden administration needs to act fast if it wants to deal with a government headed by relative moderates like Rouhani instead of more hardline figures.

Iran presidential elections will be tightly restricted — a group of Shiite Muslim clergy decide who is allowed to run — but 59 percent of Iranians said they wanted a president who “refused to compromise on Iran’s rights.”

Very few supported the legacy of Rouhani, whose administration negotiated the JCPOA. Sixty-four percent of Iranians polled said that they wanted a candidate who would oppose Rouhani’s policies.

The current favorite to replace Rouhani is conservative Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi (28 percent), according to the poll, followed by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (12 percent), a right-wing populist who oversaw much of Iran’s pre-2015 nuclear escalation but who fell out with Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei. Raisi’s lead over Ahmadinejad has narrowed since October, according to the poll.

In third place, but trailing significantly, is the conservative former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (6.4 percent), followed by the current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif (5.3 percent).

“Biden should not seek to impact Iranian politics, but he should know that he will have an easier time negotiating a JCPOA return with its original Iranian architects as opposed to its Iranian opponents,” Sina Toossi, senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council, told Responsible Statecraft.

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