Poll reflects opinion shifts in Iran after deal

Friday 02/10/2015
Iranian street. Shoppers at the main bazaar in the capital, Tehran, on September 16, 2015.

London - Polling in Iran is often unre­liable but a generally unre­ported poll in August came up with interesting mate­rial about public opinion on the July 14th nuclear agreement and its likely effect on factional struggles as parliamentary elections approach.
Three-out-of-four of Iranian poll participants said they support Teh­ran’s deal with world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, according to a survey by Toronto-based IranPoll for the University of Maryland*. Fully 74.8% of respond­ents said their opinion of Iranian President Hassan Rohani improved due to the agreement, giving him an approval rating of 88%, with 61% ex­pressing a “very favourable view”.
Those saying economic condi­tions are improving increased from 49.3% in May to 57.4%. Overall, therefore, it is not surprising that 61.1% say they want next Febru­ary’s parliamentary elections to give a majority to supporters of Rohani, up from 49.8% in May. Those pre­ferring a majority of the president’s “critics” have dropped from 24.4% to 21.9%.
How voters in the country iden­tify supporters and critics in Febru­ary — Iran has no real party system — may depend on lists formed for the election but Rohani’s popular­ity surely increases the chances that Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani will seek an electoral arrangement with the president.
Even the poll’s bad news for Roha­ni is hardly devastating. While the vast majority (84.6%) of respond­ents said it was “very important” for Iran to continue developing its nu­clear programme, the government argues this will be possible under the agreement. There may be more leeway for opponents of the agree­ment in the finding that 60% of those asked said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can­not inspect military sites, whereas IAEA inspectors in September vis­ited Parchin, where the agency has long sought access to investigate al­legations of past weapons research.
But these matters are unlikely to distract voters’ attention too much from the economy. A finding with more potential to hurt Rohani is that 44% of respondents said they expect sanctions to be lifted at the same time Iran introduces most of the restrictions it has agreed to; 32% even said they will be lifted before then.
The reality is the most damaging sanctions will be lifted only after the IAEA has verified Iran’s compli­ance on nuclear inspections, which could be as late as April 2016 — after the elections. On the other hand, the poll does little to suggest fer­tile ground for key fundamentalist policies. Even though only 31.2% of Iranians asked stated a favourable view of the United States (up from 28.3% in May) and 52.3% view the United States “very unfavourably” (down from 53.2% in May), 79.1% said Iran and the United States “should strive to mitigate” their dif­ferences, a huge increase from 46% in July 2014.
Interestingly, on the threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), 59.5% sig­naled support for Iran and the Unit­ed States “collaborating”, up from 48% in July 2014.
As far as the fundamentalists’ arguments for a “resistance econ­omy”, public opinion seems to be moving against them after the nu­clear deal. In July, a majority (53%) supported “economic self-sufficien­cy” as opposed to a minority (43%) supporting “increasing trade with other countries”.
The two, of course, are not incom­patible but by the August poll the balance has reversed, with 49.7% backing increased trade and 47.6% backing self-sufficiency.
The economy has long been cen­tral to voter’s concerns. Rohani’s breakthrough in the 2013 presiden­tial campaign was to link the nu­clear issue with the economy with his careful criticism of the conduct of nuclear diplomacy under the previous president, Mahmoud Ah­madinejad.
Rohani’s government has tight­ened fiscal management, helping reduce inflation from 40% in 2013 to 14%. After the economy shrank during Ahmadinejad’s final year in office, growth is predicted at 2.3% in 2015, 6.1% in 2016 and 6% in 2017 by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. Unemployment remains a long-term challenge but was down from 11.5% in the first quarter of 2015 to 10.8% in the sec­ond quarter.
In the face of such improvement, the fundamentalists lack a convinc­ing counter-narrative. Their best bet may be to drop criticisms of the nuclear agreement, stop talking about a “resistance economy” and start demanding a redistribution of wealth. After all, it was a demand for egalitarianism that put Ah­madinejad into office in 2005, when he overcame pragmatic conserva­tive Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and two reformists.
Interestingly, IranPoll found Ah­madinejad with a favourable rating of 61%, albeit down from 67% in July 2014. The lack of another fun­damentalist with his appeal was highlighted by 23.1% of respondents saying they did not even recognise the name of Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator and defeated 2013 presidential candidate.
Given Ahmadinejad’s continued standing, it is tempting to wonder whether his chosen heir, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, might now be pres­ident had he not been barred by the watchdog Guardian Council from the 2013 presidential election. But as Rohani moves on, that possibility heads for the “what ifs”’ of history.
*The poll of 1,000 Iranians was conducted August 8th-18th by tel­ephone. The data have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent­age points.