It has been almost a year since President Trump withdrew the United States from the landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Yet the expectation Washington will rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a future date remains stubbornly strong. More than 50 retired generals and diplomats issued a statement urging Washington to reenter the deal.
The Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese remain keen on keeping the deal going. So, too, is the American public. According to Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling conducted after the U.S. withdrawal, 66 percent favor U.S. participation in an agreement that lifts some international economic sanctions in exchange for strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program.
But the Trump administration’s decision to exit the deal looks to be shifting the mood among the public in Iran in important ways. A recent IranPoll survey suggests the Iranian people are becoming so cynical about the outcome of the process that any attempt at new negotiations between the United States and Iran could be dead on arrival.
Iranian attitudes are changing
In 2015, Iranians turned out in large numbers to give a hero’s welcome to their chief negotiator and foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, after a nuclear deal was reached. But recent IranPoll phone surveys conducted in Iran have found both Zarif’s and President Hassan Rouhani’s approval ratings are slipping.
The drop in Iranian public support for the Iran nuclear agreement is even more dramatic. A December IranPoll found that Iranian public support for the JCPOA plunged from 76 percent in August 2015 to 51 percent in December 2018. Iranians have soured on the whole negotiation experience. Seven in 10 Iranians say the JCPOA experience demonstrated it was not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions because Iran cannot have confidence other world powers will honor their side of an agreement (72 percent in December, up from 67 percent in January 2018).
Why the change?
Explaining this recent dive in support for the deal requires understanding why Iranians initially supported it. Critically, it was never out of a desire to see Tehran’s nuclear program or military diminished. Since 2014, Iranian public backing for their country’s nuclear program has stayed fixed around 90 percent. On top of that, virtually all Iranians believe it is important for the country to develop missiles (76 percent very important, 20 percent somewhat important, in 2018).
Instead, Iranians expected economic dividends after the nuclear deal. They wanted the West to show them the money. In fact, Iranian expectations of a windfall seem to have outpaced the exact terms of the agreement, with many Iranians believing all sanctions — not just nuclear-related ones — would be lifted. Instead, following the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, Washington reinstated all the sanctions that had been in place before the agreement was signed.
Targeting not just Iran but also the countries that trade with it, the sanctions apply to oil, banking and shipping sectors, critical areas of the Iranian economy. Even more recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested the U.S. government designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as an official terrorist organization. If it comes to pass, this would be the first time a military unit of another government would fall into this category.
The result is many Iranians do not feel the West has followed through on their side of the bargain. By January 2018, six in 10 Iranians said the United States had not lifted all of the sanctions it agreed to lift in the JCPOA, nearly double the number that said the same in 2016. Confidence in the United States to live up to its perceived agreement obligations fell from 45 percent in 2015 to just 12 percent in 2018.
These impressions allow the Iranian regime to divert the blame of economic hardship. While most Iranians blame the country’s economic situation on their own leaders’ mismanagement, the portion that blames western sanctions is increasing (from 26 percent in May 2015 to 36 percent in December 2018).
Despite the reimposed U.S. sanctions, the European signatories to the Iran deal are laboring to keep trade with Iran alive by setting up INSTEX, a special purpose payment vehicle. But both Zarif and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini criticized this payment channel, saying the European Union is not fulfilling its JCPOA obligations.
These messages have been reaching the Iranian public. For the first time since 2016, less than half of Iranians are convinced European countries will fulfill their obligations under the deal (44 percent compared with 61 percent in June 2018).
Rouhani, whose elevation to the presidency in 2013 was an impetus for starting talks with the United States, seems to have tapped the current sentiment in Iran during a speech broadcast live on state television earlier this month in which he declared “there is no possibility of entering negotiations with America.” Zarif recently resigned, then quickly returned, in a move that seems to have done little to reverse power moving toward the hard-liners in Tehran.
How much does this matter?
We can expect the Iran agreement will be a 2020 campaign issue. No fewer than five presidential hopefuls on the Democratic side — including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala D. Harris — say they would rejoin the JCPOA as long as Iran continued to comply with the requirements in the 2015 agreement.
But just because an American president may want to return to negotiations does not mean Iranian leaders will jump at the invitation. Nor do Iranian leaders distinguish between Democrats and Republicans in their public criticism of the United States.
As things stand, neither a sudden reversal in policy by the Trump administration nor Democratic campaign vows to reenter the deal if elected looks likely to lead Iran back to talks any time soon. And there certainly is no pressure from the Iranians to do so.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
John R. Cookson is a digital content officer at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.