Iran’s Nuclear Negotiations: Assessing the Anomaly of Success

If the ongoing, and freshly extended, negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program result in an agreement, it will signal a strongly positive exception to the content and tone of overall relations between Iran and the West—especially the United States.

A successful agreement will likely require the West to accept some degree of Iranian uranium enrichment capability, as well as progressive lifting of the economic sanctions linked to the nuclear issue. Such an agreement would constitute a distinct loosening of the West’s approach to Iran. For Iran, such an agreement will likely involve frequent and intensive inspections of nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and more interrelation with the global economy—rocking some Iranians’ sense of national autonomy.

In July 2014, the Program for Public Consultation, along with the Center for International and Security Studies (CISSM) at the University of Maryland, conducted a public survey about the prospects of an agreement. Targeted at an American audience, the survey asked participants various questions about U.S. policy objectives in pursuing a deal with Iran.

The survey asked participants to distinguish between two possible courses of action the U.S. could take in its negotiations with Iran, and then rank them according to preference. The first option had the U.S. continuing to pursue an agreement that would accept some enrichment by Iran, but with substantial limits and intrusive inspections. The second option saw the U.S. trying to impose new sanctions in hopes that the pressure would eventually persuade Iran to cease enrichment completely.

Before deciding, participants were asked to evaluate the full spectrum of arguments for and against each course of action. These arguments were developed by analyzing the policy discourse on options for reducing proliferation risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program, especially those presented in speeches given on the floor of the U.S. Congress. The briefing and arguments were then vetted and refined based on conversations with staffers (both Republican and Democrat) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as well as several outside experts.

When the results were tallied, a majority of participants showed some receptivity to every argument they were presented with. Participants did not dismiss any objection to a deal, nor did they discount any possible advantage a deal might provide. These responses were similar among Republican and Democratic participants. After evaluating arguments, 62 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats preferred continuing to seek an agreement that would accept but constrain Iranian nuclear enrichment. This preference for seeking an agreement increased significantly for participants who had achieved a higher level of education.

Interestingly, the American public’s preference for seeking an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue is not premised on a history of trust—indeed, it goes against a long-standing negative view of Iran and its government. In the same survey, 79 percent of respondents said they held an unfavorable view of the current Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani. In 2006, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, a similar survey revealed that 77 percent of respondents viewed the Iranian government unfavorably. Clearly, public perceptions of Iran within the United States have changed little over time.

The most popular argument presented to respondents in favor of pursuing an agreement (convincing to 63%) was quite hardheaded. It read:

No matter what happens, making a deal with Iran to limit its enrichment will put us ahead of where we are now. If Iran sticks with the deal, we’ll know they aren’t making a nuclear weapon. If they try to break out of the deal, with more intrusive inspections, we will have much better means to spot it immediately and it will be so completely clear that we will be better able to mobilize the world against them. Either way we come out ahead.

The survey demonstrates that Americans do not let their negative views of the Iranian government get in the way of their willingness to make a deal. This delinking of attitudes is also visible in the public’s willingness to attempt confidence-building measures such as direct talks between the two governments on issues of mutual concern or greater cultural, educational and sporting exchanges. These measures garnered 82 and 71 percent support, respectively, from respondents to the same survey.

But what of the Iranian public’s perspective? A telephone survey of 1,037 Iranian adults conducted in July 2014 by the University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion Research working in conjunction with CISSM provides some insights.

Respondents were asked about nine specific rules that are reportedly under discussion in the talks, and then asked to rate each one as acceptable, possibly acceptable, or unacceptable. The nine provisions included Iran giving assurances never to produce nuclear weapons, not enriching uranium above the current level (five percent), not improving the quality of enrichment machinery (including centrifuges), not increasing the number of enrichment machinery, dismantling about half of the centrifuges and associated machinery that are currently being used for enrichment, accepting limits on Iran’s nuclear research activities, accepting limits on the size of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile, continuing oversight and inspections to the degree that is currently being undertaken by international inspectors, and accepting oversight and inspections to go beyond what is currently being undertaken by international inspectors.

Majorities of respondents, ranging from 57 to 79 percent, found four of the nine provisions either acceptable or worth considering. These provisions included Iran permanently renouncing its development of nuclear weapons, continuing and intensifying international inspections within Iran, and limiting the level of enrichment to five percent. Moreover, about half of those surveyed said they would also consider an additional three provisions beyond the four mentioned, which suggests a willingness to try for a deal comparable to that of the U.S. public.

Another three provisions received mixed responses, with about half of those polled calling them unacceptable; the rest thought either that they were acceptable or that they could be viable depending on the provisions included as part of the rest of the deal. The best regarded of these three was a required limit on stockpiling enriched uranium. Slightly less acceptable was freezing the number of centrifuges.

Two provisions, dismantling about half of centrifuges in current use and accepting limits on nuclear research, were found to be unacceptable by large majorities of those polled. Both, tellingly, could be seen as constraints on Iran’s development of science and technology rather than as direct constraints on developing a nuclear weapon or its components. Since four in five Iranians view nuclear energy as “very necessary” for the country’s future, support for research is a point of wide consensus in Iranian society.

To understand these responses, it is essential to understand that a large majority of Iranian citizens believe that their country’s program is, in the first place, peaceful. Most Iranians—71 percent in the same University of Tehran/CISSM survey—know about the fatwa declared against nuclear weapons. Because it comes from the Supreme Leader, is understood as both government policy and a moral interpretation of Islam. Furthermore, nearly as many Iranians know—and around 62 percent of them know some or a lot—about the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and Iran’s signatory obligation to now develop nuclear weapons.

Iranian citizens, like their American counterparts, display a discerning ability to delink their willingness to pursue an agreement from their distrust of the other country. Seventy-one of Iranian respondents viewed the United States unfavorably, and 84 percent had an unfavorable view of the U.S. government. Despite this, however, the Iranian public is also willing to attempt confidence-building measures between the two countries, and has supported them for years by large majorities. In the University of Tehran/CISSM survey, 66 percent supported the two governments engaging in “direct talks on issues of mutual concern”; 75 percent supported “greater educational, cultural, and sporting exchanges”; and 80 percent supported more tourism in both countries, including having a larger number of Americans visit Iran.

On the downside, however, most Iranians have very low expectations of the current negotiations. Fewer than half of those polled think President Rouhani’s government will emerge with a deal on their nuclear program. And even if a deal did come to pass, Iranians have even lower expectations that the U.S. would do its part. When instructed to “assume that Iran would fully accept and implement U.S. demands with regard to its nuclear program” and then asked, under those conditions, whether they expected the United States would “gradually lift most nuclear-related sanctions” against Iran or “continue the sanctions and the pressures…for some other reasons and excuses,” 74 percent picked the latter option.

Despite this pessimism, however, Iranians’ openness to considering many of the concessions currently under discussion in the negotiations shows their willingness to transcend their negative views of the other party—as is true of the American public as well.

With respect to the policy elites in the two countries, it is clear that by pursuing a possible agreement both governments are also delinking it from other concerns in a way that mirrors their publics. But many in the U.S. Congress and policy community are reluctant to do so. In the United States, Iran’s political class is sometimes described as fanatical and irrational such that no agreement, even a closely monitored one, could be relied upon for long. In Iran, there are those who suspect the entire U.S. political class of a commitment to overthrowing the Islamic Republic, and believe this motivates all U.S. policies toward Iran.  Obviously, neither the Obama administration nor the Rouhani government adhere wholly to these views of the other as they have both agreed to extend the negotiating process.  But that is not to say that the views of hard-liners carry no weight.

Beyond the question of reaching an agreement and what such an agreement might look like, there is also the question of what would happen to the gains realized in the interim plan of action in case of failure. For the United States and the international community, the interim plan has brought greater IAEA access and the dilution of 20 percent-enriched uranium stocks, which represent meaningful gains over the pre-Rouhani period. If these gains are lost, many in the U.S. policy elite may criticize them as minor and trivial in the first place out of a sour-grapes mentality that could, correspondingly, sour discussions on the issue.  If other members of the P5+1 value the lost gains highly, however, a sour-grapes discourse from the U.S. will not do the U.S.’s image as a capable negotiator any favors.

On the Iranian side, the gains from the interim plan have been amorphous. So far, sanctions relief is not strong enough to act as an advertisement, convincing Iranians that they will indeed benefit from negotiating constraints on their nuclear program. Presently, only the United States’ extraterritorial sanctions have been relaxed (with the notable exception of civil aviation safety). Iran’s petrochemical sector and auto industry are in a position to gain from these relaxed sanctions, but little of the expected benefits are filtering through to Iran’s economy. The United States’ success in keeping sanctions relief tightly fenced-in has the downside of not creating much of a constituency in Iran that supports making concessions in exchange for more sanctions relief.

The talks have been extended again and will run through June 2015.  It still seems an open question as to whether enough people in the outer, non-governmental circles of the policy elite in each country will accept such an anomalous agreement. While neither of the two publics appears desperate for an agreement, both have demonstrated an ability to delink the nuclear issue from the other antagonisms that persist between the two countries. In Congress, however, the recurrent interest in placing new sanctions on Iran raises the question as to whether simple routine will ultimately win out over opportunity.