New surveys show Trump’s Iran policy has opposite of intended effect

FILE - In this June 24, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence.

This fall, we are likely to see President Trump’s Middle East foreign policy shaken on multiple fronts. The withdrawal of troops from Syria is echoing in all directions, as the region’s actors change their assumptions about what the United States might do. The U.S. policy of maximum pressure on Iran is high on the list of questions.

When the Trump administration chose to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and heavily sanction Iran, it expected ordinary Iranians would demand that Iran make concessions and pressure the government through mass protests in response to economic pain.


Three new surveys of the Iranian public conducted by The Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM) not only deflate this view, they show that U.S. efforts are having the opposite effect from what is intended.

CISSM has been conducting regular surveys of Iranian public opinion since 2014, with prior surveys extending back to 2006. Over 2019, we conducted surveys in May, August and October, showing the Iranian public’s direction of travel under the maximum pressure policy. The study was conducted through telephone interviews by IranPoll, based in Toronto, Canada, with a total of 3,000 randomly selected respondents.


Though sanctions have hurt the economy over the last 18 months, Iranians may feel they can live with them. The percentage of Iranians calling the economy “bad” rose to a high of 73% in May, but dropped to 68% in October. Those saying the economy is “getting worse” were at their highest in April 2018, at 64%. By October 2019, over a year after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, the figure had dropped 10 points.

Though it would be natural to expect that pressure from sanctions would make Iranians wary of the military risks their government is taking, it’s not. Asked in August 2019 about incidents “concerning…oil tankers and smaller ships, involving Iran, Britain and the Gulf states,” only 19% said “Iran should primarily be careful to make sure these incidents do not multiply and turn into a bigger conflict.” Instead, 77% said that “whenever there is evidence of a violation of Iranian waters [or] air space…Iran should punish the perpetrators to make such incidents less likely in the future.” On Iran’s troops in Syria, three in five (61%) approve of keeping them in place, with 32% opposed — no different from in 2016, when the United States was still in the JCPOA.

We asked many questions about possible negotiations, probing for openness in the public sphere. It’s a tough sell. Seven in 10 Iranians think the main lesson of the JCPOA is that “it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions, because Iran cannot have confidence that if it makes a concession world powers will honor their side of an agreement.” Consistent with this, three in five now think Iran should withdraw from the agreement.

But this is not the whole story, because even now, Iranians are positive toward international nuclear security in general. Seventy-four percent say Iran’s joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was a good idea, and a similar majority favors the NPT’s stated goal of eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Should the United States change its position, re-enter the JCPOA, and fulfill its terms, a very large majority of Iranians would acknowledge it. Asked to imagine that “the United States returns to the JCPOA, lifts all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, and is willing to talk in a forum that includes all the P5+1 countries,” 75% of Iranians would support Iran joining such talks.

Not surprisingly, Iranians’ views of the United States are the worst they have been in the last 13 years — not an omen suggesting a mass movement for negotiating with the United States. Eighty-six percent now have an unfavorable view, up 10 points since the end of 2016. And while it is official U.S. policy that sanctions not block medicines from Iran, 57% say these items are harder to get than they were a year ago, and 70% believe this is intentional U.S. policy.

What these results show is that Iranians would support their government coming back to the table to discuss a redefined nuclear agreement and quite possibly wider issues — but only if the P5+1 countries hold up their end of the existing bargain. There is no sign that more “maximum pressure” will work, and meanwhile the Middle Eastern environment is getting increasingly unstable.

Clay Ramsay (, a senior research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland, College Park., co-authored the study with Prof.s Nancy Gallagher and Ebrahim Mohseni.