Survey Shows Iranian Pessimism on Economy, Pride in Healthcare Response

16 Dec 2020

Survey Shows Iranian Pessimism on Economy, Pride in Healthcare Response

By Nancy W. Gallagher and Clay Ramsay

December 15, 2020


Recent Western reporting and analyses of Iran depict dire circumstances and make natural assumptions about how the population must be reacting to an economy battered by sanctions from the United States and ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. A public opinion survey conducted in September and early October by the University of Maryland’s Center on International and Security Studies and IranPoll provides data to compare with these assumptions. The telephone survey included a national probability sample of 1,004 respondents. Some results are surprising, and some are remarkably similar to public attitudes about the pandemic in the United States and European countries.

The survey finds that Iran’s public is more pessimistic about the economy than they were earlier in the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. But domestic mismanagement and rising inflation appear to be bigger factors in this shift than the sanctions per se. Those most directly affected by COVID-19 are more negative about the economy. Yet, the Iranian public is generally satisfied by the government’s response to the pandemic and support public health efforts, even when they make a bad economic situation worse. 

Reactions to the Economy

Those Iranians who believe the economy is very bad and getting worse are more numerous now than at any time since CISSM first asked these questions in 2015. When asked to rate Iran’s economic situation, 74 percent called it either somewhat bad (22 percent) or very bad (now a 53 percent majority). Throughout 2018 and into fall 2019, those seeing the economy as “very bad” fluctuated between 40 and 45 percent. The October 2020 level of those saying “very bad” is a marked increase—13 points higher than a year ago. When asked about the direction of economic conditions, 72 percent said they were getting worse—18 points higher than a year ago (October 2019). Only 22 percent said they were getting better.

Optimism about Iran’s economic future has declined unevenly over time. The last time our polls recorded a plurality thinking the economy was getting better was in May 2015, shortly before the nuclear deal was signed. When JCPOA conditions for suspension of nuclear-related sanctions were met in January 2016 but the economy did not show tangible gains, pessimism began to gain ground. Its previous peak was in April 2018, shortly before the Trump administration fulfilled its threat to withdraw from the JCPOA if Iran did not make more concessions. As the Trump progressively ratcheted up its maximum pressure campaign by reimposing sanctions the Obama administration had lifted and adding new sanctions on Iran, the public remained generally pessimistic. Yet, the percentage holding that view declined ten points from April 2018 to October 2019 as the negative effects of new sanctions had less impact on everyday life than anticipated, unemployment decreased, and currency devaluation slowed. 

Respondents with higher nominal monthly incomes were progressively more likely to see Iran’s economy as very bad and getting worse. For example, of those in the highest income bracket (average household monthly income over 6 million tomans), 64 percent said the economy was “very bad” and 88 percent said it was “getting worse.” In the lowest income bracket (under 1 million tomans), a lesser 52 percent said the economy was currently “very bad” and 60 percent thought it was getting worse.

This suggests that the recent jump in economic pessimism is related to Iran’s steep currency de-valuation. Average consumer prices have increased by 30 percent this year, which is high – but lower than 41 percent last year. Higher-income Iranians have experience even steeper inflation, because the currency has depreciated sharply despite government efforts to stabilize it in mid-2019. The open exchange rate went from 11,369 tomans to one U.S. dollar in October 2019 to 29,740 tomans to one dollar in October 2020--a 162 percent increase.

We periodically ask Iranians what has the greatest negative impact on their economy: foreign sanctions and pressures, or domestic economic mismanagement and corruption. Given the emphasis placed by Western media and policy experts on “crippling economic sanctions,” it would be natural to expect that a majority of Iranians see this factor as paramount, but that has never been true in CISSM surveys.

In our most recent survey, 57 percent saw domestic issues as the bigger factor, while 36 percent blamed sanctions more. Before the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, a slightly higher 63 percent called domestic mismanagement the more important issue. If the renewed US sanctions have affected general public attitudes at all, they have caused more Iranians to blame foreign pressures rather than their own government. Iranians with higher monthly incomes, however, are progressively more likely to attribute bad economic conditions to domestic mismanagement, with 75 percent of those at the top holding this view. 

Reactions to the Pandemic

Iran’s weak economy and the ravages of COVID-19 are mutually reinforcing. When Iranians think about how their society should respond to the pandemic, large but not overwhelming majorities endorse strong measures, while a significant minority disagrees—a pattern similar to that found in Western countries. This is striking given the severity Iranians clearly see in the country’s economic situation. A clear majority of 58 percent thought the government should close restaurants and “workplaces where people work in close proximity” to prevent the virus’ spread--“even if this would damage Iran’s economy.” Twenty-nine percent disagreed, saying “it is more important for the government to encourage economic activities, even if this would lead to more people getting sick.” 

Experience of the virus in one’s own circle is a majority phenomenon in Iran. Fifty-nine percent knew someone who has gotten sick “among…family, friends, and acquaintances,” while 41 percent did not. Over a third (37 percent) report personally knowing someone who has died from the disease. The virus’ economic impact has also been harsh, with one in five (19 percent) Iranians reporting that someone had lost a job in their own household. Iranians who know somebody who has died from the virus or who have suffered a pandemic-related job loss are about ten points more likely to say that economic conditions are very bad than those who have not had these experiences.

For comparison with the United States, Kaiser Family Foundation found in September that a lesser 24 percent of Americans knew someone who has lost their life to COVID-19. On the pandemic’s job costs, Kaiser asked a broader question in the United States—whether someone in one’s household had “lost a job, [has] been placed on furlough, or had…income or hours reduced because of the coronavirus outbreak.” In October, 45 percent of Americans said yes. It appears that in the early fall, somewhat more Americans had been affected by job loss, while somewhat fewer had lost somebody they knew to COVID-19 than was the case in Iran. 

Despite the strain that the coronavirus has placed on Iran’s public health care system, we did not find widespread dissatisfaction. Asked to “rate the performance of the public healthcare system in Iran,” a strikingly high 85 percent called it “very good” (38 percent) or “somewhat good” (47 percent), with only 15 percent calling it somewhat poor (9 percent) or very poor (6 percent). Rural respondents viewed the system especially warmly, with 45 percent calling it “very good” (urban respondents, 35 percent). This may reflect past investments Iran has made in building out basic healthcare in more isolated areas.

Although Iran has been hard-hit compared to other countries in the region, most Iranians seem relatively satisfied with their government’s performance. We asked respondents to think of “other countries that are similar to Iran” and then ponder whether Iran’s response has been more effective, less effective, or about the same. Given this subjective yardstick, only 25 percent thought Iran had been less effective. Thirty percent thought it had been about the same, and 40 percent thought Iran had been more effective than other similar countries. The more dissatisfied quarter of respondents tended to be more urban, and more pessimistic about the economy than the average Iranian.

These numbers suggest that Iranians are less pleased with their government’s handling of the pandemic that citizens of some advanced countries are, but more positive than people in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Pew Summer 2020 Global Attitudes Survey asked respondents in 14 advanced countries whether their country had done a good job or a bad job with COVID-19. Top scores went to Denmark (95 percent) and Australia (94 percent), and Sweden (71 percent) was comparable to Iran, while the U.S. (47 percent) and U.K. (46 percent) had the lowest satisfaction levels.

We asked about personal compliance with COVID-19 guidelines and about closing schools during the pandemic. The responses were similar to attitudes in the United States. A clear majority of Iranians supports public health measures, but this is not unanimous. Thus, 91 percent said they “wear a mask over [their] mouth and nose” when going out in public, but only 57 percent said they “always” do so. When a vaccine “becomes available in Iran and is approved by Iran’s Ministry of Health,” only 10 percent said they would not take it; however, less than two thirds (62 percent) said they would definitely get themselves vaccinated. Nearly two-thirds (67 percent) said schools should remain closed while 27 percent responded that they should be open for in-person classes.

In conclusion, Iran’s public has a consensus that the country’s economic situation is worse than any time since at least 2015. But they do not see the United States as the primary cause of the country’s troubles. Iranians also seem quite aware that Iran is not the only country in crisis now. Their attitudes toward the pandemic are not different in kind from those found in richer countries, and they are generally proud of their public health service’s response.