Will Raisi’s Policies Be Shaped by Iranian Public Opinion?
Will Raisi’s Policies Be Shaped by Iranian Public Opinion?
By Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
November 22, 2021
Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has spent his first 100 days in office touring the country in order to meet with communities and to hear their grievances. A steady tempo of protests, including major protests in Esfahan over water shortages, make clear that Raisi faces significant pressure to respond to deep public pessimism about Iran’s economic circumstances. This pessimism and doubts over the ability of the Iranian government to safeguard the welfare of ordinary Iranians overshadowed the Iranian presidential election, which took place in July. Official turnout reported by Iran’s Ministry of Interior was 48 percent, a historic low.
A new nationally representative survey fielded by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM), sheds light on public mood in Iran and makes clear the role that economic malaise is playing in strained state-society relations. In CISSM’s September 2021 survey, 53 percent of respondents claimed they “voted on the day of the election,” slightly higher than the official turnout (the difference between the two figures is slightly greater than the survey’s margin of error).
Those respondents who reported not voting were then asked to explain why in an open-ended question. The top three reasons cited were “previous presidents not keeping their promises” (14 percent), “being concerned about contracting COVID-19 at the polling stations” (13 percent), and “protesting [the] bad economic condition of the country” (12 percent). Prominent Iranian political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam has described the election as a “turning point” for the Islamic Republic, claiming that “because a majority do not take part in the election… that means a majority do not support the Islamic Republic any longer.” For President Raisi, cultivating public support after the chastening experience of the election will be the only way to recover legitimacy for his administration, and by extension for the political project of the Islamic Republic.
To win this legitimacy, Raisi must contend with a long-running and slow-moving economic crisis. After two decades of uninterrupted economic growth, the Iranian economy was thrust into a steep recession in 2012, resulting from financial and oil sanctions imposed on the country in response to Iran’s nuclear activities. Between 2012 and 2016, Iran’s economy was stagnant, with currency depreciation, high inflation, and chronic unemployment creating difficult conditions for Iranian households. Then, in January 2016, Iran benefited from significant sanctions relief following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal saw Iran agree to limits on its civilian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of UN, US, and EU sanctions levied by the P5+1. For the next two years, Iran experienced robust economic growth. But in May 2018, President Donald Trump reimposed US secondary sanctions on Iran as part of his unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. This move pushed Iran back into a significant period of economic contraction, which was later compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the first quarter of 2021, Iran’s economy was the same size as it was in the first quarter of 2012, meaning that Iran has essentially experienced a decade of economic stagnation.
In broad terms, the Iranian public has two forces to blame for their immiseration over the last decade—the endogenous force of government mismanagement and the exogenous force of international sanctions. Which force Iranians identify as the primary cause of the country’s economic misfortunes will shape other aspects of their political opinions, particularly when it comes to interpreting and giving credence to political messaging from Iranian policymakers and Western policymakers alike.
Whether sanctions are apportioned blame depends on the context. On one hand, Western policymakers insist on the strength of sanctions when justifying the efficacy of the tool. For example, they argue that cutting Iran’s oil exports can push the Iranian government into a fiscal crisis, depriving the Iranian state of resources for “malign activities.” On the other hand, Western policymakers tend to downplay the impact of sanctions when those impacts seem to punish ordinary Iranians. For example, they claim that shortages in humanitarian goods are resulting from corrupt practices within Iran, and not the impact of sanctions on routine trade. Similarly, Iranian policymakers faced with criticism over the dire state of the economy may point to sanctions as the key factor. On the other hand, their critics suggest that the impact of sanctions could be neutralised if the right methods of economic management were in place—suggesting that it is management and not sanctions that is the more important factor.
For years, the Iranian public has been bombarded with these seemingly contradictory statements made by policymakers unwilling to accept the blame for economic underperformance. To whom the Iranian public assigns that blame is ultimately consequential, both within the context of Iranian domestic politics and the relative fortunes of different political factions, but also for Western and especially American policymakers who believe that sanctions provide a means to shape Iranian politics, whether by coercing a change in policy, or should the Iranian government refuse to change tact, by precipitating widespread unrest or even a revolution.
So, who is winning this blame game? The data collected by CISSM, which reflects responses to questions asked in multiple surveys fielded between July 2014 and September 2021, offers some clues. The lack of periodization makes it difficult to create comparisons between the survey data and macroeconomic data for Iran in a robust way. Still, the survey data makes clear that the Iranian public assigns more blame to “domestic economic mismanagement and corruption” than to “foreign sanctions and pressures” for the country’s recent economic troubles. Looking across the surveys, around 60 percent of Iranians cite mismanagement as having a greater negative impact on the Iranian economy than sanctions. However, the proportion of Iranians who assigned more blame to sanctions rose around 6 percentage points between January 2018 and May 2019, the period in which the Trump administration completed its reimposition of secondary sanctions on Iran. The perception that sanctions were having negative impact on the Iranian economy was reinforced by statements from Iranian leaders, who decried the “economic war” being waged on the country by the United States. Yet even as Iran’s GDP shrank by around $44 billion in this period, most Iranians continued to cite mismanagement as the primary cause for the country’s economic hardship.
Curiously, Iranian views of the country’s general economic situation have become more negative over time, with the trend continuing in periods during which Iran experienced sanctions relief. Between June 2016 and January 2018, a period in which Iran’s economy grew around 18 percent, the proportion of Iranians who felt that the “country’s general economic situation” was “good” fell from 39 percent to 30 percent. Just six months after the implementation of the JCPOA, a clear majority of Iranians felt that the economic situation was “bad.” In many respects, this is a surprising finding—while the macroeconomic data was more positive, the sentiments were not. Of course, the Iranian public does not form its opinion of the country’s economic performance through a rigorous analysis of the data. Rather, the downward trend in public sentiment may reflect disappointment that the economic recovery was not more robust or more immediately felt. Rural households bore the brunt of the sanctions impact. Poverty rates among rural households increased 100 percent. In comparison, the urban poverty rate increased just 60 percent. The economic recovery was also unequally distributed. The economic benefits of sanctions relief were felt in the capital city of Tehran but were less perceptible in peripheral cities and rural communities.
While the economic recovery may have eventually been felt in more communities had the period of sanctions relief not been cut short, the absence of a significant improvement in economic fortunes in the months following the implementation of the JCPOA might have impacted confidence for future economic performance. The economic conditions were not getting worse, but the fact that the situation appeared to be stagnant even after the lifting of sanctions may have made Iranians feel that the situation was more dire—sanctions relief was a broken promise. While its surveys are nationally representative, CISSM has not published a cross-tabulation allowing analysis of respondents based on their socioeconomic status or location. Nonetheless, it is fair to assume that economic pessimism is pervasive. The September 2021 survey conducted by CISSM asked whether “three years from now, the living condition of ordinary Iranians” would be “better” or “worse.” A significant 36 percent of Iranians responded that living conditions would be “worse,” with 17 percent responding that conditions would be “much worse.” While 54 percent of Iranians responded optimistically that conditions would be “better,” just 11 percent responded that conditions would be “much better.” These findings ought to be considered in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to ravage Iran due to delayed vaccination rollout and poor adherence to public health measures. Three years is a time horizon in which the amelioration of the pandemic situation is a reasonable expectation. Even so, a significant proportion of Iranians feel that their welfare will continue to decrease.
For the Raisi administration, this pessimism is a political problem. In the absence of an electoral mandate for his policy agenda, Raisi’s approval ratings serve as the ultimate measure of his political support. While most Iranians did not go to the ballot box to register their support for Raisi, this does not mean that he lacks goodwill. As he has risen in prominence in Iran’s political scene, Raisi’s approval ratings have improved in step. According to the latest CISSM’s survey, a significant 78 percent of Iranians hold a favourable view of Iran’s new president. These findings are corroborated in an October 2021 poll from Gallup, which put Raisi’s job approval rating at 72 percent. Raisi appears interested in maintaining this support. By prioritising the country’s vaccine rollout and overseeing an increase in the vaccination rate to around 50 percent, Raisi has been able to address a key concern of the public. Confidence in the national government rose because of this policy intervention, increasing to 62 percent.
The vaccine rollout demonstrates that the policies of the Raisi administration can be responsive to public opinion. The question is whether Raisi will be able to tackle the country’s more intractable economic problems, around which significant public pessimism remains. During a recent meeting of the country’s COVID-19 taskforce, Raisi declared, “In the fight against COVID-19, the issue of shaping public opinion is an absolute requirement.” While Raisi was referring to the importance of clear communication in public health campaigns, his admonishment to the gathered officials can be understood another way. For this administration to succeed, policy must respond to public opinion, and public opinion must improve in turn.