With Joe Biden as President-elect and Donald Trump soon leaving the White House, analysts are engaging in endless speculation about what this will mean for the future of the JCPOA – the “nuclear deal” negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran.
Instead of adding to the already excessive speculation/commentary on “What Joe Biden should do?”, it might be useful to discuss the opinions of both Iranians and Arabs compiled from polling across the Mideast.
Pre-JCPOA polling data indicated that although Arabs believed that Iran was pursuing its nuclear programme with the goal of developing a nuclear warhead, they were more concerned with the Islamic Republic’s meddlesome interventions across the region. In fact, it was Iran’s involvement first in Lebanon, then in Iraq, and finally in Syria that caused the deepest concern in Arab public opinion.
Iran’s favourable ratings among Arabs in most countries plummeted from the 80 per cent range in 2006 to less than 30pc in 2012 and then to less than 20pc in the most recent polls. At the time, it was Iran’s role in Syria that acted as “the nail in the coffin of Iran’s standing in Arab opinion”.
I supported the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) for three reasons.
First, a negotiated solution to any problem reached through multilateral diplomacy is always preferable to conflict.
Then there was the hope that the framework created by the P5+1 could be extended to negotiations dealing with Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its involvement in regional conflicts.
Third, I reviewed our polling results from Iran and Arab countries in the years after the “deal” and then after Trump pulled out of the agreement and instituted new sanctions on Iran.
When the JCPOA was announced in 2015, majorities in most Arab countries were opposed to it. But support for the agreement grew with increasing confidence that it would serve to limit Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear bomb.
By 2018, majorities in these same countries supported the deal. But as there was growing concern with Iran’s regional behaviour, in that same year, strong majorities in every Arab country, including Iraq and Lebanon, supported the US decision to scuttle the deal.
We saw dramatic shifts in Iranian public opinion between 2014 and 2015, after the announcement of the JCPOA, and finally in 2018.
In 2014, almost one-half of Iranians felt their country “should have the right to a nuclear weapon because it is a major nation”. After the 2015 deal support for that proposition dropped to 20pc. Then following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, the percentage of Iranians who felt they had a right to a nuclear weapon rose again to 40pc.
In 2015, 80pc of Iranians supported the agreement and said their country’s interests had been well served by the deal. After the US pullout positive responses to both questions, dropped to 60pc.
Also in 2014, substantial majorities of Iranians (between 90pc and 60pc) expressed support for their government’s involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In 2015, after the agreement, that percentage began to drop and by 2016 it had plummeted to below 50pc in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and just 20pc in Yemen.
After the US pullout and the introduction of new sanctions, the Iranian public’s support for these foreign involvements had risen to over 60pc.
After the JCPOA, not only did the Iranians express significantly less support for a nuclear weapons programme and for involvement in foreign conflicts, they also said they wanted their government to focus more resources on job creation and give more emphasis to protecting personal rights.
After the US pullout and new sanctions, Iranian opinion shifted to support for their government and its policies.
It seems that the incoming administration may be on the right track, seeking engagement with Iran and not conflict. And it plans to re-enter the JCPOA, but with the added component of firmly addressing Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts.
Such an approach may be difficult to achieve for several reasons. Iranian opinion has hardened. The new US sanctions have taken a toll and with elections in Iran coming in June 2021, the country’s hardliners are on the ascent. Attitudes towards Iran have also hardened in the US, especially among Republicans, where any move to ease sanctions or re-enter the JCPOA may be met with strong opposition in Congress.
Opinion towards Iran among Arabs has also hardened in light of Iran’s continuing aggressive role in the region.
Nevertheless, engagement remains the better course. Efforts to negotiate a re-entry in the JCPOA, while at the same time addressing Iran’s regional involvement, may provide a key to shifting public opinion in Iran and the Arab world – both of which need to be considered.