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Iranian Public Opinion at the Start of the Biden Administration: Report

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View the full study and survey questionnaire and trend tables. This survey is one in a series of surveys related to Iran that CISSM has conducted since 2013. View the complete list of surveys.

View the release event for this study.

Listen to an episode of The Iran Podcast featuring an interview with Dr. Nancy Gallagher on this study.


Summary of Findings

State of the Economy
The majority’s negative expectations about the economy appear to have bottomed out. Sixtyeight percent say it is “getting worse,” but this is down four points from October 2020. A majority (53%) calls the economic situation “very bad” -- no more than four months ago. While 52% say their family’s economic conditions have worsened in the last year, exactly as many said this in October 2019. Half report their family’s consumption of red meat has decreased; the other half say it is unchanged. Only one in fifty households report buying foreign currency or gold coins, about a third of those who said so in 2019.

Economic Orientation
Three in five Iranians would like to see their country trade with other countries that have been reliable in the past, while producing many key goods at home. This is also what a majority thinks is actually meant when leaders use the term “resistance economy.” Only one in five seek complete self-sufficiency, and only one in five are attracted by trading with as many countries as possible.

Impact of Covid-19 and Evaluation of Iran’s Response
The pain caused by the pandemic has grown since October 2020. Four in five personally know someone who has gotten sick from covid-19 (up 20 points); half know someone who has died (up 12 points); a quarter have a household member who has lost employment (up 6 points). At the same time, though, Iranians have some pride in their collective response: three in four say the government has done a good job with the pandemic. Over four in five say they will probably take a vaccine once these are available.

Impact of Sanctions
Nearly half say the U.S. sanctions have had a “great negative impact,” and over four in five say the sanctions have had a negative impact “on the lives of ordinary people.” These levels are almost unchanged from 2019. When asked whether foreign sanctions or domestic mismanagement and corruption have greater negative impact, only a third picked sanctions. When given the pandemic as a third choice, only a quarter picked sanctions as the worst factor. About two thirds experience that fewer foreign-made medical goods are available, and seven in ten assume the United States is seeking to prevent humanitarian-related products from reaching Iran. At the same time, a large majority believes that with a major effort, Iran could increase its international trade.

Life Satisfaction
Despite the hardships of current life in Iran, when asked about their personal happiness, a majority reported experiencing enjoyment much of the day, but a majority also reported experiencing worry much of the day. When offered a 0-to-10 scale with the “worst possible life” at the bottom and the “best possible life” at the top, the average rating was 4.7. (This result is similar to Iran’s score in the World Happiness Survey--4.6.) When asked where they thought they would be on this scale in five years, it was 5.7. A majority say they are better off than their parents were at the same age, and half say when children today in Iran grow up, they will be better off than their parents.

Views of the United States and Steps to Improve Relations
Seven in ten Iranians followed the U.S. election; nine in ten know Biden won. Iranians expect Biden's policies toward Iran to be somewhat less hostile; asked to put this on a 0-to-10 scale, 3 was the average response, compared to a 1 for Trump. Almost four in ten now believe the United States would fulfill its obligations were it to rejoin the JCPOA, up from three in ten in October 2020. Fewer than in October—now under half--think the U.S. is definitely seeking to prevent humanitarian-related products from reaching Iran. Very unfavorable views of the United States, while still quite high, have also declined slightly. Attitudes toward the American people are more mixed, with slightly more (49%) holding a negative view than a positive one (45%).

Asked to consider positive steps the Biden administration could take to improve US relations with Iran, four in five thought removal of the terrorist designation from Iran’s central bank would be very meaningful. Seven in ten said condemning the scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination as against international law would be very meaningful. Two in three found a full U.S. return to JCPOA compliance very meaningful. These far outranked the other steps offered respondents.

Reviving the JCPOA
For the first time since 2018, a majority again approves of the nuclear deal. About three in five say it is likely that the U.S. will return to the JCPOA. However, only about four in ten think that if the U.S. does return it will fulfill its obligations (up from three in ten in October 2020). Iranians also lack confidence in compliance by the other P5+1 countries.

Iranians are staunchly opposed to negotiating with the Biden administration before the U.S. returns to full compliance with the JCPOA. Sixty-nine percent objected to this possibility, while 28% thought that Iran should try to reach a new nuclear agreement with the United States. The sanctions currently in place appear to make those Iranians who blame them for Iran’s bad economy somewhat more willing to support immediate negotiations, but a majority of that group still opposes new negotiations before the U.S. fulfills its JCPOA obligations.

About three quarters support the parliament’s recent law that demands wider nuclear activities and reduced inspections unless the United States and other P5+1 countries take immediate steps in line with their JCPOA obligations. Those who approve of the JCPOA are less likely to support the nuclear law than those who disapprove of it, but 62% of strong JCPOA supporters still favor the law, presumably as a way to increase pressure for compliance by the United States and the other signatories.

As for the ongoing debate about who should return to compliance first, 88% of Iranians of approve of a possible sequence in which the U.S. returns to full compliance before Iran reverses its nuclear steps that exceed JCPOA limits, while 65% oppose Iran once again fulfilling all its nuclear obligations before the U.S. returns to the agreement. Fifty-five percent approve of a simultaneous return to full compliance, while 51% oppose a step-by-step approach.

European Role in Reviving JCPOA
Iranians are divided over a proposal that European countries make “specific commitments to increase trade and investment” in return for Iran returning to full compliance with the JCPOA. However, as in 2019, over four in ten do not perceive any current European steps to actually protect their companies from U.S. sanctions for trading with Iran; only a quarter see European efforts as meaningful. Three in four believe fear of the United States is the primary reason why European companies are not trading with Iran.

Attitudes Toward Broader Negotiations
The Biden administration has said that after the U.S. has rejoined the JCPOA it would pursue negotiations with Iran to strengthen the terms of that agreement and address other U.S. concerns. Iranians are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward broader negotiations: a majority would only agree to new negotiations after a few years of U.S. compliance with the JCPOA. There is currently strong opposition toward changing any of the JCPOA’s terms in follow-on negotiations, with 85% categorically rejecting a demand to end uranium enrichment and 72% opposed to making the JCPOA’s limits on Iran permanent.

Asked about negotiations over advanced conventional weaponry, respondents overwhelmingly rejected a demand to end ballistic missile testing by Iran. Two in three think their development acts as a deterrent against attack--more than in 2019. They were somewhat less negative toward limiting the range of ballistic missiles of all countries in the Middle East, with 57% opposed and 38% saying it could be acceptable depending on the circumstances. Half showed interest in a proposal that would limit advanced weaponry exports to all Middle Eastern countries.

Iran's Regional Involvements and the IRGC
A modest majority prefers that Iran deal with regional problems through diplomacy, rather than seeking to become the most powerful country in the region. Four in five want diplomatic discussions with other Middle Eastern countries to continue; a little under half support expanding them. As in past years, four in five want Iran to support policies in Iraq that equally benefit both Shiites and Sunnis. A little less than half want Iran to encourage a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Yemen. Three in ten support Iran helping the Houthis defeat their opponents and a fifth say Iran should not get involved.

A very large majority views the Revolutionary Guard’s regional military activities favorably and three in five say Iran should increase its support of groups fighting terrorist groups like ISIS; both these majorities have grown since 2019. A majority thinks that even if Iran were to stop the Guard’s activities, this would only lead the United States to push for more concessions in other areas. Over three in five support IRGC playing a role in Iran’s economy.

In responding to military incidents, incursions into Iran’s waters or airspace, or to assassinations of major figures, substantial majorities support retaliation as a way to deter similar actions in the future. More than a third would prefer diplomatic and legal action to punish those who assassinate high-ranking Iranian figures to lethal revenge, though, because they believe that seeking revenge would not make such incidents less likely and would make Iran less safe.

Views of Other Countries and Organizations
Among the countries evaluated, currently Russia is the only country viewed favorably by a clear majority of Iranians. Roughly half are favorable toward China and Germany. Four in ten are favorable toward France; two in ten toward Britain. Majority negative feeling toward the United States is extremely high, but lower than in October 2020. Unfavorable attitudes toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are comparable to those toward the United States. On the United Nations, favorability has declined to four in ten. Two in three are favorable toward Hizbollah of Lebanon; half are favorable toward the Houthis of Yemen.

Shifting East
A majority are aware of the negotiations between China and Iran on a large-scale cooperation agreement, and a clear majority think such a deal would probably be in Iran’s interests. Asked whether Iran should try more to strengthen its relations with European countries or with Asian countries, half would put the emphasis on Asian countries; the numbers preferring a European emphasis have declined since 2019.

Favorability of Iranian Political Figures
As the next Iranian presidential election approaches, the public’s positive views of some political figures are trending upward. Foreign Minister Zarif is viewed favorably by three in five (up in the last four months). Ghalibaf, a past mayor of Tehran with a reputation as a pragmatic conservative and the current speaker of the Majlis, is viewed favorably by two in three (also up in the last four months). Raisi, the conservative head of the Judiciary who is seen as spearheading current anti-corruption campaigns that have led to the arrest and conviction of prominent Iranian figures including the brother of President Rouhani, has a stable three in four viewing him favorably. Rouhani, the current president who cannot run again, is viewed favorably by only about one-third of Iranians.

Iran's June 2021 Presidential Election
A slight majority say they definitely will vote in the next Presidential election and a fifth say they might vote. Seven in ten see the country’s economic conditions as the next president’s most important challenge. Over three in five say the next president should be someone who is currently critical of President Rouhani’s policies, and three in five think Iran’s next president should mostly stand up for Iran’s rights rather than focusing on negotiations.

Election of and Expectations from the 11th Majlis
In February 2020 parliamentary elections were held, and slightly under half of eligible adults voted. A majority view economic issues as the most important for the Majlis to address, with the pandemic and sanctions named only by small minorities.

Media Consumption
Three in four Iranians continue to follow the news through domestic TV, though there has been a slight decline. Almost two in three use social media for news, and the internet is now used for news by nearly seven in ten. About a quarter get their news through satellite TV channels. Newspapers’ share has sharply declined in the last few years and they are now read by about one in five.


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