Official American rhetoric about Iran is often bellicose. It has been for years, ever since Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Then, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George Bush named Iran in his infamous “axis of evil” speech. Relations improved slightly under Barack Obama, who oversaw a deal requiring Iran to scrap its nuclear program. Donald Trump has threatened to shred that agreement.
According to Gallup, a pollster, in recent years Americans have regularly ranked Iran as one of their “greatest enemies,” right alongside North Korea. Republicans tend to take a more negative view of Iran than Democrats, though a December 2016 poll by the University of Maryland found 64 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear deal.
What do Iranians think of America? It was, after all, American meddling in Iranian politics — starting with the CIA’s overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and then its support for the Shah’s brutal secret police — that set Iran on course for the Islamic revolution and its confrontation with Washington.
The answer, of course, is that it depends how you ask. But what might surprise American journalists is just how developed and educated Iran is and how eager Iranians are for better relations. Iran has been badly hurt by Western sanctions in recent years, but by some measures, it ranks high for the Middle East in development indicators such as education and life expectancy.
Polling in an autocracy
The Islamic Republic of Iran has an unusual political system, where the president is, nominally, elected by a popular vote (2009’s election was marred by significant fraud, say activists). Yet he is subordinate to the “supreme leader,” who is appointed by an opaque council. Ayatollah Khamenei, supreme leader since 1989, oversees the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a militia that has been implicated in extrajudicial arrests and executions in Iran.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that some Iranians feel uncomfortable sharing their opinions with strangers. A telephone poll of Iranian adults conducted shortly after a brutal 2009 crackdown following the contested election notes problems asking Iranians sensitive questions by phone: “a portion of respondents appeared uncomfortable with participating in the survey, and these respondents tended to express views sympathetic to the Iranian government and its interests. Those who felt most comfortable with the survey tended to express views sympathetic to U.S. interests. Had a larger portion of respondents felt comfortable with the survey, more of them might have expressed support for policies favorable to U.S. interests.”
One tactic smart pollsters use in sensitive situations is to ask not what an individual thinks, but what he or she believes other people think.
With those caveats, here are a few polls that may be useful starting points for writing about America’s fraught relationship with Iran. Alas, we could not find any quality time-series polls dating back to the revolution. If you know of any, please email me.
A number of universities including Princeton, Cornell and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM) contract IranPoll.com — a Toronto- and Tehran-based pollster that works in Iran’s multiple languages — to survey Iranian economic conditions and attitudes toward foreign countries.
In December 2016, Iran Poll and CISSM found Iranian support for the nuclear deal had declined from 42.7 percent in August 2015, just after it was signed, to 21.3 percent. Over 72 percent said Iranians’ living conditions had not improved under the deal. Over half said, “Iran has not received most of the promised benefits.” Optimism was also declining and over 70 percent believed Trump, who was president-elect at the time, would “take measures against Iran that are at odds” with the agreement. Over 31 percent named unemployment as the single most important issue facing Iran. An explanation of the findings is here.
Iran Poll, which uses a nationally representative probability sampling method, manages VoxIran.com, an active database of Iranian opinions on over 3,000 questions. As is the case with most pollsters, much of its work is performed for private clients and is proprietary.
World Public Opinion
WorldPublicOpinion.org, also at the University of Maryland, collected Iranian political attitudes by telephone in September 2009. It found:
- 63 percent of Iranians wished to restore diplomatic relations; 27 percent opposed.
- 60 percent favored unconditional talks with the United States; 30 percent opposed.
- 77 percent had an unfavorable view of the U.S. government, down from 85 percent the year before, at the end of George W. Bush’s administration.
- 85 percent felt the U.S. government treats their country unfairly.
- 27 percent said they were completely free to express their views; 44 percent said they were “somewhat free”; 23 percent said they were not free.
- 68 percent said it was “definitely a U.S. goal” to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.”
- 38 percent favored developing atomic weapons and nuclear power; 55 percent favored only developing nuclear power.
Parts of the report, which is available in hard copy in some libraries, are available here and here. Several other World Public Opinion surveys of the Iranian public are on its website.
World Values Survey
The World Values Survey, which is run out of Sweden by a global network of scholars, has polled Iran twice — in 2000 and then in 2005. The personal, face-to-face interviews measure topics like happiness, faith, how much time Iranians spend with their families, and their views on politics. The surveys, unfortunately, are not longitudinal — the questions are not identical in different years. A few examples:
- In 2000, 18.7 percent of men and 12.6 percent of women reported “frequently” discussing politics with friends; respectively, 28.8 and 24.2 percent reported “never” doing so.
- In 2000, protecting the environment was important to more respondents than economic growth. In 2005, the question was worded differently, but the economy was a greater concern.
- In 2000, 69.4 percent agreed with the statement, “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” That number was statistically unchanged in 2005, at 69 percent.
- In 2000, more Iranians expressed support for army rule (67.3 percent) than for a democratic political system (55.2 percent). But in 2005, 64.2 percent called army rule “fairly bad” or “very bad” and 91.2 percent called democracy a “very good” or “fairly good” system of government.
One of the most prominent Western pollsters operating in Iran is Gallup, which, like IranPoll.com, uses a mix of telephone and face-to-face interviews. Often the results are only available by subscription, which many libraries offer.
The Gallup World Poll dates back to 2006 and covers dozens of variables — from what Iranians think of the U.S. government, to economic confidence, perceptions of corruption and access to healthcare and the internet.
Some of the data are available for free online, while most require a subscription (available at many libraries). A few examples:
- The percentage of Iranians who report smiling or laughing “a lot yesterday” has climbed steadily since 2006, from 53 to 73 percent in 2016.
- The percentage of people who report that religion is important in their lives has climbed from 76 to 86 percent over the same period.
- Iranians face a great deal of economic uncertainty. In 2016, only 7 percent reported being employed full time by a company (as opposed to self-employed), down from 14 percent in 2015. By comparison, in the U.S. the number is 44 percent. When this is indexed, Iran places 132 out of 142 countries; it ties with Somalia and Yemen.
- In 2016, Iranians reported being the second-most stressed-out country in the world, after Greece. (The question was, “Did you experience the following feelings during a lot of the day yesterday? How about stress?”)
- As far as overall economic confidence, Iran is somewhere in the middle of the global pack (51 out of 141). But use this finding with extreme caution: Residents of Uzbekistan — one of the former Soviet Union’s most repressive dictatorships and backwards, kleptocratic economies, according to the U.S. government — have the greatest economic confidence in the world. Unemployment is so high in Uzbekistan that millions of people leave every year to take the most difficult and poorly paid jobs Russia has to offer.
Gallup Poll Briefing is another product available by subscription. Some examples:
- In 2008, before the 2009 election crisis, Iranians were slightly more likely (50 percent) than Americans (47 percent) to express confidence in their electoral process.
- In 2013, more Iranians disapproved (41 percent) than approved (34 percent) of their country developing “nuclear power capabilities for military use.”
- “Iranians’ already low approval of U.S. leadership did not get worse after the U.S. toughened sanctions in late 2011. Eight percent of Iranians approved of U.S. leadership in late 2011 and early 2012 — one of the lowest ratings the U.S. receives worldwide. While nearly half of Iranians (46 percent) support cutting ties with countries that impose economic sanctions on Iran, nearly one in three (31 percent) do not, showing a sizable minority of Iranians still value relations.”
- By early 2015 — a year after the West began easing sanctions during nuclear negotiations with Iran — fewer Iranians were reporting that sanctions were negatively affecting them.
- The Harvard Kennedy School library maintains this list of American and global opinion polls, while the Boston College library keeps this list of international polls.
- A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center found 69 percent of Americans held a negative view of Iran, as did 59 percent of adults in 39 disparate countries. Only 11 percent of adults in those countries felt that Iran’s government respects its citizens’ personal freedoms.
- Between 2001 and 2006, the number of Americans viewing Iran as their country’s “greatest enemy” jumped from 8 percent to 31 percent, according to Gallup. George W. Bush gave his “axis of evil” speech in early 2002.
- Polling Report collates prominent surveys of American opinion on Iran here.
- The RAND Corporation — a think tank close to the U.S. defense establishment — conducted a poll shortly after the contested 2009 election as well as this one that uses social media to gauge public opinion.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Keely Wilczek, senior research and instruction librarian at Harvard Kennedy School, for her dogged help unearthing sources.