New poll: Iranians mostly blame the U.S. for sanctions, still want a nuclear program

February 8, 2013

Families shop in a Tehran market. (Atta Kenare -- AFP Photo)

The primary aim of economic sanctions on Iran is to deter the country's leaders from further developing their nuclear program and to push them to the negotiating table. It's tough to know for sure, but the sanctions seem to be effective at this, weakening and isolating Tehran.

But, judging from a new Gallup poll, the sanctions do not seem to be successful at two major, secondary goals: turning Iranian public opinion against the nuclear program and against national leaders for behaving in a way that has invited sanctions. Last year, The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson reported that the Obama administration sees public discontent as an intended effect of the sanctions. But an overwhelming majority of Iranians told Gallup that Iran should continue its nuclear program, even when the question was specifically phrased to remind them that economic sanctions are a direct result of that program.

Gallup asked, "Given the scale of the sanctions against Iran, do you think Iran should continue to develop its nuclear power capabilities, or not?" Almost two-thirds of respondents, 63 percent, said yes. Only 17 percent said no; 19 percent said they didn't know or refused to answer.

The poll also found that Iranians are almost five times as likely to blame the United States for sanctions as they are to blame their own government. Even fewer blame Europe or the United Nations, though both are instrumental in the crippling economic sanctions. Pollsters asked, "Which of the following groups do you hold most responsible for sanctions against Iran?" Out of the seven choices, the most popular by far was the United States, with 47 percent. Only 10 percent blamed the Iranian government; 9 percent said Israel; 7 percent each named "Western European countries" and the United Nations. Three percent said "someone else," zero said "no one," and 17 percent declined to answer.

The implications of this survey are not great for U.S. policy. Although this survey doesn't necessarily mean that sanctions are ineffective at their primary goal -- isolating Iran and deterring further nuclear development -- it does show some worrying, secondary signs. Sanctions do not, based on this poll, seem to be rallying Iranians against their leaders or the nuclear program, but rather reinforcing popular antagonism toward the United States. To the extent that Iranian leaders are worried about popular support, this poll suggests that nuclear development and defiant foreign policy will continue to be winners.

Polling within Iran is obviously not easy. Gallup says this poll is based on phone interviews with 1,000 Iranian adults and cites a margin of error of 2.8 percent. It certainly seems plausible that Iranians might be reticent to discuss sensitive political matters over the phone with strangers, or to implicitly criticize the government, which may account for the high proportion of respondents who refused to answer.

Still, these results seem broadly consistent with past polling. A 2010 RAND poll found that 87 percent of Iranians and a March 2012 Gallup poll found 57 percent of Iranians support a civilian nuclear program. The jump to 63 percent is beyond the margin of error, though it's still small. It's worth noting that the March 2012 poll did not mention sanctions when asking if Iranians supported the nuclear program. It seems striking that asking about nuclear development in the specific context of sanctions, which have been painful for Iranians, does not seem to have reduced public support for the program, and may even have increased it a bit.

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