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Poll: Iranians disillusioned with Biden, back turn toward East

The survey did not show evidence that the regime is close to collapse.

Analysis | Middle East

The Iranian public has grown increasingly disillusioned with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden and the United States more generally and supports its new government’s emphasis on turning more to the East in its international political and economic relations, according to a new survey released Monday by the Iran Poll and the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies.

Conducted by phone and over the internet from August 30 to September 9, the poll, the latest of 10 conducted by the Iran Poll and the CISSM since 2014, found declining popular support for the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and overwhelming skepticism that the United States could ever be trusted to permanently abide by its terms.

Less than half of the 1001 respondents said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of the JCPOA compared to nearly 75 percent in 2016, while a record 27 percent of respondents said they “strongly oppose” the deal. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said it was either “somewhat” or “very unlikely” that Washington would “live up to the JCPOA’s obligations” even if it agrees to rejoin the accord from which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2017. Only a third said they thought it either “somewhat” or “very likely” that Washington would comply.

And while 27 percent of respondents said both Iran and the United States should be flexible in their negotiations to return to the JCPOA, 52 percent said Iran should hold firm to its demands and rely on Washington’s European allies to persuade Washington to accept them, and another 16 percent said Tehran shouldn’t even try to restore the accord.

The survey, which was taken just a few weeks after the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi, found unprecedented support for the new president; 78 percent of respondents said they either “somewhat” (33 percent) or “very” (45 percent) favorable opinion of Raisi. That marked a 50 percent increase in his overall favorability ratings in May 2017 when he was soundly defeated by former President Hassan Rouhani.

Conversely, Rouhani, widely depicted by western media to be a “moderate” or a “reformist” compared to Raisi’s more hardline positions over the past four years, gets favorability ratings of only 20 percent. At the same time, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they retained a favorable impression of Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, who negotiated the JCPOA on Iran’s behalf and who is widely seen as trying to steer Tehran’s foreign policy in a more westward direction.

Asked whether Iran should focus more on strengthening its diplomatic and trade relations with European countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, or should it try more to strengthen its diplomatic and trade relations with Asian countries like Russia, China, and India,” or both equally, a 54-percent majority cited the Asian countries, about six percentage points up from two years ago.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they had either a “very” or “somewhat” favorable impression of China — the second highest level since the question was first posed by the survey in 2014. That improvement was particularly remarkable considering the results a year ago when China’s favorability rate fell to less than 40 percent, apparently due to the widespread impression that the failure of China’s leadership to act more quickly to contain the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in the virus’s spread to Iran where it has taken a devastating toll.

As to perceptions of the United States, a whopping 85 percent of respondents said their impressions were either “somewhat” (9.4 percent) or “very unfavorable” (75.9 percent). Of the countries on which respondents were asked to rate, only Saudi Arabia performed worse (89 percent unfavorable).

While Washington’s ratings in the latest poll were only two or three percentage points better than during the Trump years, the survey suggested that many Iranians have lost whatever hopes they may have held that Biden would be less hostile. Asked to rate Biden’s policies towards Iran on a scale of zero (completely hostile) to 10 (completely friendly), 67 percent give a score in the 0-4 range. In February 2021, only about half (52 percent) expected Biden’s policies to be hostile toward Iran. More than 40 percent of respondents gave Biden a zero or a one, compared to one out of three in February.

Hostility towards the United States is clearly deep-seated, reaching back to the birth of the Islamic Republic, the survey suggested. Seventy-six percent of respondents said they believe Washington had prior knowledge of recent explosions at the Natanz nuclear facility; 85 percent said they believe it had prior knowledge of the assassination — mostly attributed to Israel — of Iran’s nuclear scientists; 83 percent said it had prior knowledge of Da’esh 2014 offensive in Iraq; and 91 percent said it had prior knowledge of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran.

More than four out of five respondents (83 percent) expressed support for continuing or expanding ongoing diplomatic efforts to deescalate regional tensions, even though nearly half of those expressed skepticism that such efforts will bear fruit. And a 54-percent majority said Iran should try to find mutually acceptable solutions with other countries through negotiations as opposed to 43 percent who said it should seek to “become the most powerful country in the region.” Seven out of 10 respondents, however, defended Iran’s advanced ballistic missile program — a key concern of the United States, Israel, and Iran’s Persian Gulf Arab neighbors — as “very important.” Another 20 percent said it was “somewhat important.”

The survey found virtually no evidence of widespread discontent with the ruling regime itself to suggest that Islamic Republic is on or close to the verge of collapse, as some U.S. commentators have maintained. While 74 percent of respondents described the country’s economy as “somewhat” (19 percent) or “very” (54 percent) bad, nearly half blamed external factors, notably U.S. sanctions (27 percent) or COVID-19 (22 percent) as primarily responsible.

But a 54-percent majority said they expected ordinary Iranians will be living better three years from now. Moreover, the survey found that large majorities of respondents — from 70 to 80 percent — said they had either “some” or “a great deal” of trust in the country’s basic institutions of government, the judiciary, the president, and the parliament. Trust in the police and military was even higher, at 83 percent each.

Editor's note: The subhead of this article has been amended to more accurately reflect what has been reported in this piece.

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