Iran’s New President, Public Opinion, and the Prospects for Negotiations
Does Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration as Iran’s new president doom diplomatic efforts to constrain its nuclear program and pacify its regional behavior? U.S. officials had hoped that Iran’s supreme leader would direct President Hassan Rouhani to finalize a compliance-for-compliance deal during his final weeks in office to get sanctions relief for his successor. Instead, Iran paused negotiations until after Raisi took office on Aug. 5 and appointed key officials. Critics of the Iran nuclear deal argue that the victory of a repressive hardline cleric in an undemocratic election makes arms control with Iran more dangerous, and less necessary, than ever.
Surveys of Iranian public opinion by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, which I direct, suggest that both sides in this debate are making flawed assumptions about Iranian politics. Although Raisi’s election was far from free and fair, he appears to have substantial popular support, both personally and for his projected hardline approach to foreign relations. The data indicate why Iran has held firm on several points that prevented Rouhani’s negotiators from saving the nuclear deal, his signature accomplishment. The data also contradict claims that Iranians would have preferred a more moderate president who would make more concessions and that, if they do not get sanctions relief soon, they are likely to revolt. Basing U.S. strategy on more informed assumptions about Iranian public opinion would improve prospects for restoring the nuclear deal’s special limits and inspections, as well as for addressing other concerns, like Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for groups that threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Iran is a “peculiar hybrid regime” with elements of an authoritarian theocracy combined with aspects of democracy, including presidential and parliamentary elections. Pre-approved candidates compete for votes by proposing different economic, social, and foreign policies that stay within bounds set by the supreme leader and a spectrum of political elites on the Guardian Council and other governing bodies. Public opinion surveys cannot reliably predict policy choices in representative democracies, let alone more authoritarian regimes. But, high quality polling outside the democratic West often reflects elite-level debates and divisions, and provides valuable insights about the benefits, costs, and risks for Iranian decision-makers of different policy options. Our center has been conducting regular public opinion polls in Iran that meet rigorous professional standards since 2014, so we have unique trendline data on nuclear policy, political preferences, economic conditions, and regional security issues.
A Foreseeable Winner
Raisi’s victory was no surprise. All other viable challengers either did not register to run or were deemed unqualified by the Guardian Council. Foreign observers widely assume that the supreme leader rigged the contest to get his preferred choice as the new president, and possibly also the next supreme leader. For example, Karim Sadjadpour, a policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, maintains that Raisi, whom he characterizes as an uncharismatic hardline cleric called the “Butcher of Tehran” for his role in the 1988 execution of thousands of political prisoners, “had no chance of winning a competitive election.” Biden administration officials concur that Raisi’s win was “pre-manufactured” but counter that it doesn’t really matter who Iran’s president is because Ayatollah Khamenei makes all major decisions.
Such assertions underestimate how much popular support Raisi had going into the election. The strong possibility of Raisi winning was visible in public opinion data nine months before the election. In early fall of 2020, nearly two-thirds of respondents (61.8 percent) said they wanted the next president to be “someone who currently critiques President Rouhani,” compared to 14.2 percent who preferred a supporter. Raisi’s favorability rating was at 77 percent then, while Rouhani had a low favorability rating of 37 percent, with 62 percent unfavorable at that time. Favorability ratings for these two political figures were essentially unchanged four months before the election.
In February 2021, respondents were also asked to volunteer the name of a figure they might favor for president, without being offered suggestions. Surveys use this tool to assess name recognition and measure early interest in the coming race. 28 percent named Raisi, nearly twice as many as the next most popular figure, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who registered to run again but was rejected by the Guardian Council. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the most popular politician in the Rouhani administration, was only mentioned by 5 percent, one reason why he declined to run even before a compromising interview was leaked. Nobody mentioned Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament from 2008 to 2020 who was inexplicably deemed unqualified to be president, nor Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor and the candidate on whom more reform-oriented Iranian voters converged. 33 percent of respondents offered no name at all.
This was the setting in which the Guardian Council voted in May to qualify an unusually constrained list of candidates. Many theories are circulating inside and outside Iran as to why the Guardian Council was willing to risk undermining the perceived legitimacy of the election by limiting the list of qualified candidates so sharply. Some assert that the supreme leader and Guardian Council wanted insurance against a last-minute surprise, as when Rouhani surged ahead to win in the first round of the 2013 presidential election. Others hypothesize that the council members feared Raisi would act too independently if he won by a large margin against strong contenders, so they made the election less competitive to lower turnout and weaken Raisi politically. The supreme leader both defended and criticized the Guardian Council’s decision.
Long before the Guardian Council’s action, our data predicted a low-turnout election. In February 2021, only 53 percent of respondents said they would “definitely vote” in the upcoming presidential election, compared with 67 percent who said that in December 2016. These figures are close to the official turnout rate of 48.8 percent in June 2021 and 70 percent in May 2017. Participation in the most recent parliamentary election (February 2020) was only 42.57 percent, the lowest in Iranian history. It is noteworthy, though, that enough voters were displeased or confused with the slate that the second-highest vote total went not to any candidate, but to invalid ballots (12.9 percent).
The Effects of Maximum Pressure
The main evidence cited that Raisi could not have won a free and fair election is his poor showing against Rouhani four years earlier. But this view ignores the degree to which U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal changed the political context in Iran. When Rouhani won re-election with 57 percent of the votes cast in 2017, against 38 percent for Raisi, the president’s supporters turned out in large numbers, saying he needed more to time to produce the economic benefits of the original nuclear deal that he had concluded with the United States and five other world powers in 2015. Instead, President Donald Trump left the deal less than a year later, imposed secondary sanctions on entities that engaged in legitimate business with Iran, and predicted that Iran’s leaders would soon either acquiesce to a list of demands issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or be overthrown by an unhappy public.
Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign did not have the desired effect on public opinion or Iranian politics. The number of respondents who characterized economic conditions as “very bad” actually decreased from 45 percent shortly before U.S. withdrawal to 40 percent by October the following year. As Trump “tightened the noose of sanctions,” popular opposition to concessions hardened. For example, 69 percent of Iranians said in May 2017 that their country should not agree to stop enriching uranium to avoid a re-imposition of U.S. sanctions; by August 2019, 75 percent said that Iran should not give up enrichment to get sanctions relief.
Trump’s rejection of the nuclear deal cratered support for Rouhani: His approval rating fell from 89 percent (61 percent very favorable) right after the deal was signed to 36 percent (8 percent very favorable) after a year of “maximum pressure.” Moderate and reform-oriented politicians favoring a more conciliatory foreign policy and engagement with the West were discredited. Popular support rose for principalists, like Raisi, who claim to defend the ideals of the 1979 revolution. A third power bloc — “securocrats,” who want to increase the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ control over security, economic, and foreign affairs — saw public support for their preferred policies grow. By October 2019, for example, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of respondents said that Iran should strive to achieve economic sufficiency rather to increase trade, whereas only about half (53 percent) took this position in July 2014, when negotiations leading to the nuclear deal were underway.
Iranians express more interest in presidential candidates’ ability to improve the economy than in their ideology. Rouhani won in 2013 and 2017 by promising that international engagement would bring economic benefits. That proved untrue. In January 2018, 75 percent of respondents said that the nuclear deal had not brought any improvement in people’s living conditions.
Raisi supporters’ most common reasons for liking him in February 2021 were his anti-corruption work as the head of the Judiciary (18 percent); other “positive initiatives” (20 percent), such as prohibiting courts from forcing factories to pay banks by selling off their property, thus putting employees out of work; and his attention to average people’s problems, not just to special interests (11 percent). This is noteworthy because the most common reason given in October 2020 by those who did not vote in the February 2020 parliamentary elections was “officials not addressing people’s needs” (18 percent). The small minority (21 percent) who expressed an unfavorable view of Raisi in February 2021 also cited various reasons related to poor performance and failure to attend to people’s problems (about 30 percent of that group). Fewer than 10 percent of this group mentioned his religious extremism and strictness on social issues, while only 3 percent referenced his issuance of death sentences.
Understanding the Effects of U.S. Withdrawal From the Nuclear Deal
U.S. and European officials’ hopes that Ayatollah Khamenei would direct his team to concede on the few remaining sticking points of the nuclear deal after the election was based on indications that he and other elites who make up “the system” had already made the strategic decision to conclude a deal when the time was right. Negotiators had already agreed on the most difficult technical issues, including how Iran would reverse various nuclear actions to get back into compliance with the deal and which sanctions would be lifted or left in place. U.S. officials indicated that Iranian intransigence on several political points might just be a stalling tactic. Public opinion data, though, indicates that the Iranian position on these issues reflects fundamental concerns the Biden administration should address if it wants diplomacy to work.
Iran’s insistence on reliable reassurance of U.S. compliance, and its refusal to commit in the deal itself to start follow-on negotiations reflect historical distrust of the United States, deepened by recent events. In October 2020, nearly three-quarters of respondents (71 percent) said that the experience with the nuclear deal shows that it’s not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions because it cannot be confident other world powers will honor their commitments. In February 2021, 58 percent of Iranians thought the new Biden administration would return to the nuclear deal, but only 38 percent expected it to fulfill its obligations.
The Iranian public’s attitudes to the United States have grown more negative in tandem with their lowered expectations around nuclear diplomacy. In 2015, when the deal was being negotiated, 53 percent expressed favorable attitudes toward the American people and 31 percent were favorable toward the United States in general — both high watermarks. In February 2021, favorable attitudes toward the American people were down eight points to 45 percent, while attitudes toward the United States were down 16 points to 15 percent. Given these strong negative views of the U.S. government, before entering into any new or revised deal, Iranian leaders are likely to feel they need something new as evidence that this time they will actually get the economic benefits of nuclear cooperation, including foreign investments that won’t be forthcoming if the next U.S. administration could easily declare them illegal again.
Western news accounts have often trivialized the Iranian requests for reassurance as asking for the impossible. A New York Times article quoted a senior U.S. official saying that Iran sought a written guarantee that no future American president would withdraw from the nuclear deal — a “reasonable sounding demand that no real democracy can make.” That article also reported that that Iran wanted the nuclear deal turned into a treaty, not an “‘executive agreement’ that any future president could reverse, just as Mr. Trump did,” even though President Joe Biden could not currently get 67 senators to approve ratification of this, or any other arms control accord. (U.S. presidents can also withdraw from legally binding treaties without congressional approval, as Trump did with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces accord with Russia.) Given recent history, though, it is reasonable for Iran — or any other country contemplating cooperation with the United States — to want reassurance that the United States will be a reliable partner.
An Iranian source indicated in private conversation that Rouhani might have been satisfied with something more than just verbal reassurance, but less than an iron-clad guarantee. This could have taken various forms, such as a letter signed by Biden pledging to do everything in his power to reassure foreign banks, companies, and governments that they would not be punished for legitimate trade and investment so long as Iran fully complied with the deal. This type of commitment would also be welcomed by European allies with whom Biden is trying to repair relations.
Such top-level personnel commitments, though, would probably not be enough for Raisi and Khamenei. They were openly skeptical about U.S. compliance before the deal was signed and feel vindicated now. Their doubts about U.S. compliance mirror those expressed by over a third of respondents (37 percent) when the deal was newly signed.
The 2015 agreement contains extensive verification and compliance arrangements to address concerns about compliance by Iran, but not by other parties to the deal. In a major speech shortly after Biden took office, Khamenei said that Iran needed some way to verify U.S. compliance with its obligations. There are practical ways to increase Iranian confidence that it will get the promised benefits if it returns to full compliance, and that there would be negative consequences for the United States if it did not uphold its end of the bargain. Unless the United States commits to something along these lines, Raisi may well revert to demanding that it must verifiably lift all the sanctions Trump imposed before Iran resumes full compliance with its obligations. In February 2021, 88 percent of Iranians agreed with that way of sequencing the return, compared with 55 percent who approved of a both-at-once option, and 47 percent who approved of a step-by-step approach.
The best chance of convincing Iranian skeptics they would really get compliance for compliance from the Biden administration may be for the United States to make some meaningful confidence-building move before demanding any more difficult decisions from Iran. In February 2021, we asked Iranians how significant various steps that the Biden administration could take in advance of returning to the nuclear deal would be. Those that are primarily symbolic and relatively easy, like sending Nowruz greetings to the people of Iran, were not considered that meaningful (25 percent) or not meaningful at all (42 percent). Condemning the assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh as a violation of international law, while also symbolic, would require political bravery for Biden and was considered very meaningful by 69 percent of Iranians. Lifting sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran would make it much easier to purchase medical supplies and other humanitarian goods that are supposed to be exempt from sanctions: That would be very meaningful for 81 percent Iranians.
The Biden administration reportedly considered, and decided against, taking a confidence-building initiative soon after taking office. It would face more criticism for doing so now, not only because Raisi has replaced Rouhani, but also because a 2020 law passed by hardliners in Iran’s parliament mandated that, unless Biden returned to full compliance in February 2021, Rouhani must stop complying with important nuclear deal provisions in ways that would be progressively harder to reverse. In February, our survey probed for qualms in the public about this law, reminding respondents that President Rouhani had declared “that if Iran takes the steps required by the Majlis law, it would be harder for the P5+1 to make the changes that the Majlis wants.” Even with this warning, 73 percent supported the law (39 percent strongly), including 72 percent of those who somewhat support the nuclear deal and 62 percent of the small group that still strongly approves of it. According to Rouhani, actions taken under this legislation slowed the pace of negotiations by complicating requirements for Iran’s return to full compliance. They have also prompted U.S. officials to say that the nuclear deal may lose its nonproliferation value because of advances that Iran has made while return negotiations drag on. Yet, the more domestic political heat Biden braves for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the more confidence all the other parties to the deal will have in his willingness to honor American commitments despite Republican condemnation.
Is There a Better Alternative to Nuclear Diplomacy?
Biden officials do not currently seem terribly concerned about the extended break in negotiations. They have dropped hints about tightening sanctions enforcement until Iran makes concessions on outstanding issues. Some are also considering whether the United States and its European allies could bypass the impasse over a compliance-for-compliance return to the original nuclear deal by offering — or threatening — more in order to get more from Iran. Nothing in our data suggests that either strategy would be likely to work. The Iranian public was consistently less patient and restrained regarding how Iran should respond to foreign pressure and provocation than the Rouhani administration was, so Raisi would likely have strong public support for responding to pressure with pressure.
Top Senate Republicans want Biden to take a much more hard-line approach to Iran. Critics of the nuclear deal think that saving it would bolster a regime that a fraudulent election further delegitimized, and that tightening sanctions instead would spur soft regime change. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that restoring the nuclear deal would “shower the Ayatollah with money” for foreign aggression and domestic repression. Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh claim it would give “the clerical regime a much needed financial cushion against its own incompetence.” They predict rising popular opposition borne of economic misery and political frustration in the months ahead, writing, “The big dilemma for the Biden administration may not be the potential for arms control in the 21st century but how to deal with a mass murderer facing a mass uprising.”
It is wishful thinking to believe that United States need not negotiate with the new Iranian president because his illegitimate regime will soon be replaced by a friendly government if the pain of sanctions can be ratchetted up further. Since we first asked the question in May 2015, the Iranian public has been much more inclined to blame domestic mismanagement and corruption rather than foreign sanctions for Iran’s poor economic conditions, which explains why Raisi’s anti-corruption record makes him seem like the answer to Iran’s problems.
A large majority of Iranians does acknowledge that sanctions have hurt their economy, but that does not mean they want their leaders to do whatever the United States demands as the price for sanctions relief, or that they worry about what further pain it could impose on them. In October 2019, 48 percent said that sanctions have had a great negative impact on their economy and another 32 percent said that they have had some negative impact. Those who said that sanctions have a great negative impact were no more likely than the rest of the population to support ending enrichment or extending the duration of the nuclear deal. 63 percent agreed with the statement that the United States had already done as much damage through sanctions as it could, while only 35 percent concurred with the alternative offered, that more sanctions could greatly worsen Iran’s economy. Over 80 percent agreed that Iran could use the current circumstances to build up its own domestic industries, reduce unemployment, and increase resilience. These views seem to be in line with steps taken to make the Iranian economy less vulnerable to U.S. sanctions.
By February 2021, economic attitudes had worsened significantly, with 53 percent saying that general economic conditions were very bad (compared to 40 percent in October 2019) and another 21 percent calling them somewhat bad (down from 27 percent). Yet, the public was still much more likely to blame domestic factors (52 percent) or the pandemic (21 percent) than sanctions (25 percent) for their economic woes. 68 percent of those who blamed sanctions did not want their government to negotiate with the Biden administration until after the United States was in full compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal. A majority of Iranians say they worry a lot (56 percent), but they also experience a lot of enjoyment (57 percent) and believe they are better off than their parents were at the same age (55 percent). This is not a picture of a population that has no hope and nothing left to lose.
Data collected during the major wave of protests and counter-protests that peaked in early 2018 tells a similar story. Large majorities said that they were very sympathetic with protesters’ demands that the government do more to fight corruption (85 percent), prevent price increases for food products (81 percent) and gasoline (73 percent), and preserve cash subsidies (69 percent). But, few supported calls to change some of Iran’s policies that the United States finds most objectionable, and only 17 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that Iran’s political system needs fundamental change.
Conclusion: Understanding Iranian Public Opinion Can Advance Nuclear Diplomacy
Raisi’s lukewarm expressions of support for restoring the nuclear deal and his current refusal to negotiate over other issues are completely in sync with Iranian public opinion. Over two-thirds of Iranians (69 percent) did not want their government to hold any talks with the Biden administration until it first returned to the nuclear deal and fulfilled all of its obligations. This helps explain Rouhani’s insistence that negotiations with the United States about returning to the deal be held indirectly through other parties to the deal. A majority (54 percent) also maintained that their leaders should agree to negotiate about other issues only after the United States had complied with the deal for several years, which fits the Rouhani team’s refusal to commit to begin follow-on negotiations as part of the return agreement.
At the same time, though, only 30 percent of Iranians were unconditionally opposed to further negotiations. This suggests that Raisi’s position could change if the United States allows a majority of Iranians to finally see that some real improvements to their living conditions are occurring as a result of nuclear diplomacy. Even increased access to COVID-19 vaccines and other humanitarian supplies that are technically exempt from sanctions but still very hard to get while the Central Bank of Iran remains designated as a terrorist organization could start to change the political calculus.
Having a fuller picture of Iranian public opinion counters unrealistic hopes that the Iranian nuclear problem will solve itself easily, either through post-election concessions by Iranian leaders who care more about sanctions relief than they do about domestic politics, or through a domestic revolt that replaces the current regime with a friendly, secular form of government. The idea that imposing yet more sanctions on Iran will compel Raisi to make concessions that Rouhani would not make is equally at odds with the public opinion data, which shows consistent support for responding to Western pressure by ratchetting up whatever Iranian behaviors coercive diplomacy is meant to change.
The most realistic way to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and regional behavior is for Biden to take some risks and spend some political capital to convince Raisi and the rest of Iran’s leadership to give diplomacy another chance. Biden will have to do more than the Obama administration did to make sure the Iranian people see tangible benefits flowing from cooperative engagement. None of this will be easy, but it is essential. It can only be done, though, if we have a better understanding of who we are dealing with and what they really want.
Nancy W. Gallagher is a research professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, the director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), and the former director of the Clinton administration’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Ratification Task Force. She writes on cooperative strategies to reduce nuclear risks and manage emerging technologies that impact security relations with Russia, China, and Iran.