+1 (216) 269 3272 Pierre@profilenewsohio.com
DR. JAMES J. ZOGBY ©
PRESIDENT
ARAB AMERICAN INSTITUTE

With Joe Biden as President-elect and Donald Trump soon
leaving the White House,
analysts are engaging in endless
speculation about what this
change in administrations will
mean for the future of the JCPOA
– the “nuclear deal” negotiated
between the P5+1 and Iran.

 

I’m well aware of the difficulties
involved in attempting a simple
US return to the agreement
and of additional complications
because of actions taken
by Trump and the Israeli
government that served to
strengthen Iranian hardliners.
My intention, therefore, is not
to add to the already excessive
speculation/commentary on
“What Joe Biden should do?”
Instead, I thought it might
be useful to insert into the
discussion of the past and
possible future of the JCPOA, the
views of both Iranian and Arab
public opinions compiled from
our extensive polling across the
Middle East.

 

I want to begin by confessing,
with apologies to former
Secretary of State John Kerry,
that I was against the deal
before I was for it. Just looking
back at our pre-JCPOA polling
data, I noted that although
Arabs believed that Iran was
pursuing its nuclear program
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. I found that
Iran’s favorable ratings among
Arabs in most countries
plummeted from the 80% range
in 2006 to less than 30% in 2012
and then to less than 20% in our
most recent polls. I noted, at the
time, that it was Iran’s role in
Syria that acted as “the nail in
the coffin of Iran’s standing in
Arab opinion.”

 

With these numbers in mind,
I remember asking members
of the Obama Administration’s
National Security staff, “Why
are you expending so much
of our political capital and

whatever leverage we might
have gained from sanctions on
trying to stop a bomb that Iran
doesn’t have (and even if they
did, they couldn’t use it anyway)
when we ought to be focusing
on the very real and immediate
danger posed by Iran’s direct
engagements in Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon, and Yemen?”

 

After the deal was announced,
I supported it, for three reasons.
In the first place, a negotiated
solution to any problem reached
through multilateral diplomacy
is always preferable to conflict.
And then there was the hope,
as expressed by British Foreign
Secretary Catherine Ashton, that
the framework created by the
P5+1 could be extended in due
course to negotiations dealing
with Iran’s ballistic missile
program and its involvement in
regional conflicts

 

.
My third reason for supporting
the JCPOA came after I
reviewed our polling results
from Iran and Arab countries in
the years after the “deal” was in
place and then after President
Trump unilaterally pulled the
US out of the agreement and
instituted new sanctions on Iran.

 

When the framework for the
nuclear deal was announced
in 2015, majorities in most
Arab countries were opposed
to it. But in the intervening
years, support for the P5+1
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, because there was growing
concern with Iran’s regional
behavior, in that same year,
strong majorities in every Arab
country, including Iraq and
Lebanon, supported the Trump
Administration’s decision to
scuttle the deal, expressing the
hope that it would be replaced
by a new arrangement that
would address Iran’s “role in the
region’s conflicts.”

 

Equally telling were the results
of our Iran polling, where we
saw dramatic shifts in public
opinion between 2014 and
2015, after the announcement

of the framework agreement
with the P5+1, and finally in
2018, following the Trump
Administration’s decision to
pull out of the agreement. These
shifts occurred in three areas.

 

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
framework agreement was
announced in 2015 support
for that proposition dropped to
20%. Following Trump’s decision
to withdraw from the deal, the
percentage of Iranians who felt
they had a right to a nuclear
weapon because they are a
major nation rose again to 40%.

 

In 2015, 80% of Iranians
supported the P5+1 agreement
and expressed the view that
their country’s interests had
been well served by the deal.
After the US pullout positive
responses to both questions,
dropped to 60%.

 

Also in 2014, substantial
majorities of Iranians (between
90% and 60%) expressed
support for their government’s
involvement in Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon, and Yemen. In 2015,
after the framework agreement
was announced, that percentage
began to drop and by 2016
support for these foreign
entanglements had plummeted
to below 50% in Iraq, Syria,
and Lebanon, and just 20% in
Yemen. By 2017, after the US
pullout and the introduction
of new sanctions on Iran, the
Iranian public’s support for
these foreign involvements had
risen to over 60%.

 

And finally, when we asked
Iranians their attitudes toward
their government’s performance
and policy priorities, we found
a significant shift from 2014 to
2015 and 2018. After the P5+1
framework was announced,

Iranians turned inward, not only
did they express significantly
less support for a nuclear
weapons program 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. Once
again, after the US pullout and
the imposition of new sanctions,
Iranian opinion shifted to
support for their government
and its policies. It appears
that when their government is
threatened, Iranians turn to it
and not against it.

 

Given this survey of both
Arab and Iranian opinion,
it seems that the incoming
Biden Administration may
be on the right track. They
seek engagement with Iran
and not conflict. And they
plan to reenter the nuclear
agreement, 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 sanctions imposed by
the Trump Administration have
taken a toll and with elections
in Iran coming in June 2021,
the country’s hardliners are
on the ascent. Attitudes toward
Iran have also hardened here
in the US, especially among
Republicans, where any move
to ease sanctions or reenter the
JCPOA may be met with strong
opposition in Congress. Opinion
toward Iran among Arabs has
also hardened in light of Iran’s
continuing aggressive role in the
region.

 

Nevertheless, despite these very
real difficulties, engagement
remains the better course.
Efforts to negotiate a reentry 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.
It won’t be an easy lift. But
anything is better than the
current path which leads to the
dead end of continued or, God
forbid, an expanded conflict that
no one can win.

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