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Iranians support restarting nuclear program if US backs out of deal

A growing percentage of Iranians also support their country’s military intervention in Syria in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Tehran, according to a new poll.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.

A security official talks to journalists in front of Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. Iran began fuelling its first nuclear power plant on Saturday, a potent symbol of its growing regional sway and rejection of international sanctions designed to prevent it building a nuclear bomb.  REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Iranians’ approval of the 2015 nuclear deal is growing, but so is their appetite for restarting the country’s suspended program if the Donald Trump administration stops implementing the accord.

According to a survey released today by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and, 67.1% of Iranians now approve of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That compares with 55.4% who said so soon after Trump’s election and 62.6% a year ago.

At the same time, some 55.4% of Iranians would approve of their government restarting aspects of the nuclear program that were limited by the JCPOA if the United States walks away from the deal. That’s up from 48.4% before Trump’s election.

The change in outlook comes amid growing signs that Trump may be getting ready to act on his comments disparaging the nuclear accord. The president has repeatedly challenged the recommendations of his top foreign policy advisers to continue implementing the JCPOA, telling The Wall Street Journal on July 25 that he believed Iran was not complying and suggesting that he might not provide the necessary recertification in October.

Ebrahim Mohseni, a research scholar at CISSM and a lecturer at the University of Tehran, told Al-Monitor, “While Iranians hope for the best and are optimistic about the JCPOA, data suggests that they are ready for the worst and would support some form of a retaliation if the United States abrogates the deal.”

In January, in an earlier University of Maryland poll, a large majority of Iranians predicted that the Trump administration would violate the JCPOA. Instead, Trump has twice grudgingly recertified Iranian compliance and waived the requisite US sanctions.

Several Republicans opposed to the JCPOA have told this analyst that their aim is to goad Iran into violating the agreement by imposing more non-nuclear sanctions. The Associated Press reported that the Trump administration was considering demanding new inspections of Iranian military facilities in hopes that Tehran will balk. But such demands could also trigger a time-consuming process that might postpone US abrogation of the accord.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani has so far largely abided by its obligations, according to the US State Department, while accusing the United States of violating both the spirit and letter of the JCPOA. The uncertainty caused by Trump’s expressed unhappiness with the deal, however, has discouraged some foreign businesses from returning to Iran, empowering hard-liners opposed to Rouhani’s diplomacy with the United States.

Just as in previous polls, Iranians say they are disappointed with the economic benefits that have followed implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016. A substantial majority of 63.4% described the economic situation in the country as poor, compared to 58.6% a year ago. A slight majority of 50.2% told pollsters that they think the economy is getting worse, compared to 43.4% a year ago. This is despite the slow but steady increase in foreign investment in Iran as well as the recovery of Iran’s oil exports to pre-sanctions levels.

“For most Iranians, the ball is in the US court as far as the future of the JCPOA is concerned,” said Paul Pillar, a former US national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. “There is still solid Iranian support for the agreement, despite disappointment with the slowness of economic benefits. But Iranians are prepared to respond strongly to US noncompliance, including by restarting currently restricted parts of their nuclear program. Both the opportunities and the costs associated with US decisions about the JCPOA have never been clearer.”

Both supporters and opponents of the JCPOA in the United States have raised the possibility of renegotiating aspects of the agreement to extend limitations on Iran’s nuclear program that are due to sunset in a decade, or to include issues that were not part of the deal.

However, Iranian officials have said they are not interested in renegotiating the JCPOA at this time, and a majority of Iranians seems to agree. In the latest poll, 62% opposed extending limits on Iran’s nuclear program even if Iran is offered relief from more US sanctions. A similar percentage said Iran should not extend such restrictions under any circumstances.

Both the Trump administration and the US Congress have sought to impose new sanctions on Iran related to its ballistic missile program and its support for groups such as Hezbollah. These activities fall outside the purview of the JCPOA.

In the new poll, Iranians say their government should resist such pressure. A majority of 55% says Iran should continue testing missiles despite new sanctions, although 31% would offer to negotiate ways to improve confidence in the nature of the program, which Iranians maintain is defensive.

Terrorist attacks in Tehran in June by the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) have boosted Iranian approval for foreign organizations that fight IS. According to the poll, 67.9% say Iran should increase backing for anti-IS groups, up from 59.8% a year ago. Meanwhile, a majority of 64.9% backs the deployment of Iranian military personnel to Syria to help the regime of Bashar al-Assad, up slightly from 62.7% a year ago.

When asked who they believed was responsible for the attacks on Iran’s parliament and on the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, 52% blamed IS. However, large percentages of 60 or more said Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel provided “guidance or support for the perpetrators” of the attacks.

Rouhani, who was re-elected by a solid margin of 57% in May, remains popular, with approval from 76.2% of the population. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the chief negotiator of the nuclear deal, has a similar approval rating, as does Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ebrahim Raisi, the losing presidential candidate in May, has an approval rating of 56.6%, up from 48.3% in a survey conducted after the election.

The latest poll was conducted by telephone among 1,004 Iranians from June 11 through June 17. The margin of error was +/- 3.1%. Despite the limitations of polling in Iran, CISSM has conducted similar surveys over the past few years that appear to accurately reflect trends in public opinion on crucial issues.

Correction: July 28, 2017. An earlier version of this article stated that 50.2% of those polled think the economy is getting better, when in fact this percentage reflects those who felt the economy is getting worse.