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Most Iranians feel Trump’s comments in support of protesters didn’t help, poll finds

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a university student attends a protest Dec. 30, 2017, inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by Iranian police. (AP)

A new poll of Iranians, conducted in the aftermath of widespread protests that left scores dead and many more arrested, has shown complaints about corruption and economic mismanagement voiced by anti-government demonstrators are widely shared by a broader population.

The poll, released on Friday by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and IranPoll, found comparatively little support for changing Iran's political system or relaxing strict Islamic law and suggested that criticism of Iranian foreign policy in Syria and Iraq was not as widely shared by the general population.

Iranians also felt expressions of support for the protesters from President Trump and other U.S. officials did not help those demonstrating, the survey found, with 39 percent saying they hurt the protesters' demands and 9 percent saying they helped. When asked for their opinion on the U.S. government, 85 percent of Iranians were found to have a very unfavorable opinion of it; less than 1 percent had a very favorable opinion.

Iranians had first come out to protest over high prices and other economic woes on Dec. 28 in the northern city of Mashhad, but the unrest quickly spread to at least 75 cities within a few days. In early January, an Iranian lawmaker said 21 people had been killed and 3,700 arrested after authorities cracked down on the protests. Though the protests have since died down, the polling data released on Friday suggests the economic dissatisfaction that sparked them is shared among a wide segment of society.

When polled between Jan. 16 and 24, 69 percent of Iranians were found to describe the economy is bad, the highest measured by IranPoll since it began asking in 2015. A majority of the country — 58 percent — said on the whole, conditions in Iran were getting worse, while 41 percent said the economic condition of their family had worsened over the previous four years.

Though respondents were not asked directly whether they supported the protests, they were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of complaints made by protesters. More than 8 out of 10 Iranians were found to strongly agree the government should do more to fight corruption and limit the price of foods; smaller but still high numbers focused on gasoline prices and compensation for failed financial institutions.

Iranians have long complained about their sluggish economy and the negative effects of international sanctions on their personal finances. However, a number of developments last year — including price increases, austere government spending, growing evidence of economic inequality and increased labor unrest — helped the issue reach an inflection point among a broader population.

“Most protests in Iran are over economic issues,” Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow on Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post in January. “What’s different is that it seems to have tapped into a deep sense of alienation and frustration, that people aren’t just demonstrating for better working conditions or pay, but insisting on wholesale rejection of the system itself.”

In at least some cases, anger over the economy has spilled out into different aspects of Iranian life. Some protesters were reported to have been shouting “Death to the dictator!” — a rare criticism of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More recently, some Iranian women have protested the obligation to wear a headscarf in the country. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate compared with hard-liners in the country, said protesters did not have economic concerns only.

“People had economic, political and social demands,” Rouhani said in January. While this may be broadly true, the polling data released Friday suggested the country was far more divided on political and social issues than on the economy.

A majority of the nation was found to strongly disagree with the idea that Iran needed fundamental political change (54 percent), while large minorities strongly disagreed with the idea that the military should spend less on missiles (40 percent), that the government should not be strict in enforcing Islamic law (33 percent) or that Iranian involvement in Iraq and Syria was not in its interests (30 percent).

The poll also found that generally, Iranians were happy with the way authorities had handled the protests, with roughly two-thirds saying  police handled the protests very or somewhat well, and a slightly smaller about (64 percent) saying they used an appropriate amount of force.

Though Trump was among a number of U.S. officials who voiced their support for Iranians during the protests — Trump tweeted five times in three days about the protests at the end of December, offering support for the protesters and criticizing the government — the poll found 48 percent of Iranians felt comments by the American leader and other U.S. officials had no effect on the crisis.

In general, the poll suggested a broad distrust for the United States among the Iranian public. Though most Iranians still supported the nuclear deal reached with the United States and other countries under the Obama administration, 86 percent had doubts the United States would live up to its obligations under the deal while 42 percent said the United States had violated letter of the agreement.

Much of Iranian's ire seems directed at Trump himself, with 69 percent of the country rating his policies toward Iran as zero on a ranking out of 10 — the lowest ranking possible, suggesting Trump was completely hostile to Iran.

Iranians do differentiate between the U.S. government and its people, however. While the United States has low favorability among Iranians overall, 41 percent of the country was found to view the American people as very or somewhat favorable, compared with less than five percent who felt the same of the U.S. government. Both figures are drops from the last time the question was answered in 2016.

Conducting opinion polls in authoritarian countries like Iran is difficult — the country has limitations on freedom of speech, and it is not always clear whether people feel free to voice their true opinions. However, the IranPoll series has become one of the best snapshots of public opinion in Iran over recent years, with its polling predictions for the May 2017 presidential elections accurate within less than 2 percentage points.

These most recent surveys were conducted through random dialing of landline phones between Jan. 16 and Jan. 24, with a nationally representative sample size of 1,002. The margin of error is listed as plus or minus 3.1 percent.

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