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The more Iranians learn about the nuclear deal the less they like it, poll suggests

An Iranian soldier stands guard in front of a picture of Iran's late leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, south of Tehran, Feb. 1, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA

As sanctions are relieved and Iran rejoins the broader economic community, you might expect the average Iranian to be happier than ever with the nuclear deal reached last year between Tehran and six world powers. Yet a new poll shows that support for the Iranian nuclear deal – while still very high – could be starting to dip. And in this case, the devil may be in the details.

The poll, conducted by the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies in January, shows that almost 72 percent of Iranians approve of the nuclear agreement that was reached last July. That's high, but its a dip from the previous poll, conducted in August 2015, which found 75 percent were in favor of the agreement.

Another question asked whether the deal was a victory for Iran or a defeat for Iran. In August, 36.6 percent of Iranians said it was a victory, but that number has now dropped to 27.4 percent. Interestingly, the numbers of Iranians who felt it was a defeat also dropped. Instead, a third answer – that the deal is beneficial for both Iran and the world powers that agreed to it – gained adherents, rising 43 percent of Iranians to 54 percent between August and January.

Iranians were also asked whether they felt their country's leadership obtained a good deal in the negotiations; 66.5 percent felt they had and 18.8 felt they had not. While still high, there was also a drop in positive perspectives here, too, when compared to a separate Gallup poll conducted in September 2015. That poll found that 68 percent felt they got a good deal and just 10 percent said they had not.

In a statement released alongside the new polling data, the University of Maryland suggested that perhaps this relatively modest shift in perceptions of the deal could be attributed to a better understanding of some of the details of the nuclear agreement – and some of its limitations.

Some results from the poll certainly support this idea. For example, the poll conducted last August found that 56 percent of the country believed Iran had not agreed to restraints on its nuclear research. It actually has, and the new poll shows that more Iranians (though far from all) now know this; 48.8 percent say that Iran has agreed to restraints on its nuclear research, while 30.8 percent still say it has not. The number of Iranians who believe that all U.S. sanctions were to be lifted after the deal has dropped a number of times: From 62.2 percent in May 2015, to 59 percent in August 2015, and to 40 percent in January 2016. The reality is, of course, that not all sanctions are being lifted.

Some details of the deal still seem to be misconstrued among large parts of the public in Iran. For example, according to the latest poll, 63.9 percent of Iranians still think that the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot access Iranian military sites (it can), while 65 percent believe that the United States has agreed not to implement any new sanctions on Iran under the agreement (Washington did not make any such commitment).

Conducting opinion polls in countries with authoritarian regimes is always a tricky business – it's unclear whether people will actually speak their minds – but the University of Maryland's methodology stands up to scrutiny. The poll's timing is useful, too, coming just weeks before Iranians vote in twin elections for the Iranian parliament and a separate body known as the Assembly of Experts. That Feb. 26 vote has already proven divisive, with many relatively moderate candidates rejected by hard-liners during the vetting phase. Many of these blocked candidates support President Hassan Rouhani, a key architect of the Iran nuclear deal.

There are understandable concerns that the election could prove a setback for Rouhani and a victory (democratic or not) for the hard-liners. However, the University of Maryland's poll found that Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif still enjoy high levels of support in the country (82.1 percent and 77.5 percent approval ratings, respectively). In addition, 58.9 percent of those polled said they want supporters of Rouhani to win places in Iran's parliament in the upcoming election – and 88.3 percent thought that the vote would be free and fair.

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