Burned by Trump, Iranians report negative views of the United States

Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Three new waves of nationally-representative surveys conducted by the University of Maryland over the past six months paint a damning picture of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Negative perceptions of the United States among the Iranian public are at the highest recorded level in over a decade of public opinion research conducted by the university’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and IranPoll.

Long considered one of the most “pro-American” populations in the Middle East, 86 percent of Iranians reported unfavorable views of the United States, of which 73 percent reported “very unfavorable” views. Perceptions of the United States were most positive in August 2015, shortly after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed by Iran and the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. As frustrations grew over the implementation of sanctions relief and following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal negative perceptions steadily increased.

Iranians believe that US sanctions policy is intended to cause direct harm to ordinary people. While the Trump administration claims that humanitarian goods and supplies may freely enter Iran, 70 percent of Iranians believe that US policy intends to block humanitarian trade.

“As the United States increases it pressure on Iran, Iranians are becoming more distrustful and disdainful of the United States, making them less likely to encourage their government to adopt conciliatory policies toward the United States and its allies,” said Ebrahim Mohseni, a research associate at CISSM and one of the report’s authors.

But the negative perceptions of the United States are not merely shaped by sanctions impacts. More fundamentally, Iranians are increasingly doubtful that the United States offers a model to emulate. In 2005, during the Iraq War, a Zogby survey found 37 percent of Iranians saying “America is a model country for its values and freedoms.” Now, the percentage expressing that view has plummeted to 12 percent.

This growing antagonism towards the United States tracks growing disillusionment with the nuclear deal. For the first time, a majority of Iranians (52 percent) disapprove of the JCPOA, and 59 percent believe Iran should withdraw outright.

To this end, three-in-four Iranians support the government’s new policy of gradually exceeding some JCPOA limits and threatening withdrawal unless other signatories do more to allow Iran to benefit from the deal. This new policy of escalation enjoys much higher levels of support than the policy of “strategic patience” which was in place until May of this year. That policy, which was based on the expectation that Europe, Russia, and China, would step in to mitigate the economic harm of sanctions, was supported by just 53 percent of respondents in May.

Given the failure of “strategic patience” to result in tangible economic support for Iran, a clear majority of respondents—69 percent—lack confidence that the remaining parties in the nuclear deal will uphold their obligations. This proportion has risen 33 points since January 2018. Recent European efforts, such as the establishment of a state-owned trade intermediary called INSTEX, are only looked upon positively by 24 percent of respondents. Nearly half of respondents do not even believe Europe is making a genuine effort to address Iran’s economic hardships.

However, despite the failures of Europe, Russia, and China to come to Iran’s economic aid, pessimism about the economic has not in fact increased among the Iranian public. A notable 68 percent of Iranians have negative views of the economy. But the proportion has fallen from 72 percent in April of last year, when the country was in the grips of an acute currency crisis.

The proportion of Iranians who believe the economy is getting worse has also fallen to 54 percent from 64 percent in April last year, lending credence to reports that an economic recovery is underway. Iranians continue to blame domestic mismanagement and corruption as a greater contributor to economic hardship than sanctions. But the proportion has shifted somewhat, with gap shrinking from 31 to 17 points since January 2018 as sanctions impacts become more pronounced and as the government seeks to address mismanagement more directly.

“One of the main objectives of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is to increase economic and political dissatisfaction until the Iranian government either acquiesces to Secretary of State Pompeo’s twelve demands or is replaced by a form of government more to the United States’ liking,” said Nancy Gallagher, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), and one of the report’s authors.“Our data, however, indicate that contrary to what US officials anticipated, public dissatisfaction with the economy has gone back to where it was before US withdrawal from the JCPOA. More importantly, public attitudes in Iran are hardening against the types of policy changes that the Trump administration is trying to achieve.”

Those who say the sanctions are negatively impacting Iran’s economy are not more supportive of Iran making major concessions than those who say the sanctions are having little or no negative impact. This may be in part because Iranians believe that “maximum pressure” is maxed-out. A notable 63 percent of Iranians believe the United States has sanctioned Iran to the fullest and “cannot make Iran’s economic conditions more difficult…even if it tries,” while only 35 percent think the United States can “greatly worsen” the economy.

Iranians also continue to believe in the resiliency of their economy. A clear majority see a silver lining to the sanctions. A resounding 81 percent of Iranians agree with the statement: “While it’s unfortunate that some outside powers are still blocking Iran’s participation in the world economy, we can use current circumstances to build up our domestic industries to meet our own needs. This will reduce unemployment and make our society more resilient.”

Troublingly for those hoping for a second chance at diplomacy, 72 percent of Iranians now think that the JCPOA shows “it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions” because other powers will not follow through—a five point increase from January of 2018. However, did express support for Iran returning to full compliance with the JCPOA if other parties to the deal—and the United States—were to do the same. Only 45 percent said they would approve of Iran fully complying with all of its JCPOA obligations if European signatories made specific commitments to increase trade and investment, but an additional 24 percent would approve of Iran’s return to full compliance if the United States also allowed Iran’s main customers to resume purchasing oil.

Fifty-three percent would be willing to enter negotiations on a broader deal with the P5+1 signatories of the JCPOA is all parties were to fully honor their side of the original bargain. However, only 18 percent would negotiate with the Europeans on broader issues before the United States had rejoined the JCPOA and lifted all nuclear-related sanctions.

The survey’s first wave was conducted one week after the Trump administration designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. The responses showed extensive public support for the IRGC. Sixty-one percent thought the IRGC “performed very well” in response to the severe spring floods. Three quarters of Iranians said in May 2019 that the IRGC’s activities in the Middle East have made Iran more secure; five months later, as regional tensions approached a fever pitch, the number holding that view rose to 81 percent.

The three new waves were conducted by telephone interview and each included a sample size of over 1000 respondents. The resulting data, and the trends that can be illustrated over years of research, give lie to the Trump administration’s assurances that “maximum pressure” is advancing American interests. Not only has the administration’s policy turned Iranian sentiments towards the United States more negative, but the regional insecurity that has resulted from that policy has improved perceptions of the role of the IRGC.