In the lead-up to Iran's presidential elections, a new Zogby Research Services (ZRS) poll shows that the Iranian people are not happy with either their economic situation or their government's priorities and performance. The ZRS poll was conducted in the last quarter of 2016 for the Sir Bani Yas Forum (SBY) and involved face-to-face interviews with over 1,000 Iranians nationwide. The results of this year's survey established growing dissatisfaction among Iranians and stood in marked contrast to the findings of our 2014 and 2015 SBY surveys of public opinion in Iran.
In the wake of the signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the P5+1 powers in April of 2015, Iranians had high expectations their lives would improve. When ZRS polled Iranians in September of that year, we found that they wanted a shift in their government's priorities with more attention paid to improving their economic and political situation and their country's relationships with the West and with their Arab neighbors. At least three-quarters said that investing in improving the economy and creating employment (81%) and advancing democracy and protecting personal and civil rights (75%) were the most important priorities.
Iranians also told us that they wanted their government to focus on improving relations with Arab governments (60%) and with the US and the West (59%). Way down on their list of priorities was support for their government's continuing involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
When we asked Iranians in the 2016 survey to rate their satisfaction with the government's performance in each of these areas, their displeasure comes through quite clearly. Fifty-one percent of Iranians gave their government a passing grade for investing in improving the economy and creating employment—the only policy area to receive a passing grade. Over 70% were dissatisfied with efforts to advance democracy and protect personal and civil rights. Hope for improvement in relations with the West and Arab neighbors also fared poorly—with 65% of Iranians saying they were dissatisfied with the progress their government has made in improving relations with Arab governments and 85% displeased with the efforts to improve ties with the US and the West.
This year's SBY poll also establishes that more than one half (53%) of Iranians are dissatisfied that their government is still providing support for allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Because we have been polling since 2014 on the importance Iranians attach to each of these foreign involvements, comparing responses over that time period reveals a sharp decline in support for all of them.
In 2015, 90% of Iranians saw it important for their government to be involved in Syria. That dropped to 73% in 2015, and only 24% this year! In other words, over three-quarters of Iranians do not believe that it is important for their government to continue to be involved in Syria. The same disenchantment with foreign engagement can be seen with declining support for involvement in Iraq (87% in 2014, 64% in 2015, and 47% this year. Support for involvement in Lebanon went from 88% in 2014 to 43% this year; and from 62% for Yemen in 2014 to 29% in this year's survey.)
It appears that while Iranians once took pride in the government's aggressive foreign policy, they have grown war-weary and want new priorities.
Last month, the problems facing the Rouhani government became even clearer as Iran's Central Bank released the 2016 government revenue and expense data. It was not a pretty picture. Despite the lifting of some the economic sanctions that followed the JCPOA, the government's projected rise in revenues did not materialize—owing in part to declining oil prices and a sluggish economy. At the same time, expenditures increased making this year's deficit larger than the past two years. Debt grew for both the government and the private sector making it more difficult for either to make needed increased investments in development and infrastructure.
All of this polling and economic data makes clear that Iran and President Rouhani have a problem. The policy priorities of the government are not in sync with those of the Iranian people.
The polls show that the public wants a better economy and more jobs, more political freedom, and peaceful ties with their neighbors. What they're getting instead is deeper engagement, more money spent, and lives lost in foreign wars they want to end. And as the economic data demonstrates, the Rouhani government is facing the classic choice of "guns or butter"—and with finite resources, more guns simply mean less butter. That is why the electorate that put him in office is now showing signs of deep discontent.
All of this should make the May 2017 election a referendum on Rouhani job performance and on his government's policy priorities.
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