Rand Survey: Iran on the U.S., Nukes and the Economy

May 4, 2011

Alireza Nader

         The RAND Corporation conducted a phone survey of Iranian public opinion in order to
gauge Iranian attitudes on critical issues affecting U.S. interests. Respondents constituted a
nationally representative sample of 1,002 members of the Iranian public, age 18 and older,
who lived in households with landline telephones, spoke Farsi, and were willing to participate. These respondents participated during December 10–28, 2009. The survey’s goal was to gauge Iranian attitudes on a number of issues important to American analysts and policymakers, including U.S.- Iranian relations, the effects of sanctions, and the Iranian nuclear program. The survey demonstrated that Iranians were divided on certain issues at stake between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, such as the development of nuclear weapons. But on other issues, including the economy and the prospect of reestablishing U.S.-Iranian ties, respondents expressed more-unified opinions. Our key findings are that
  • A majority of respondents view the economy as being “average” or better, though many may have hesitated to express their dismay with the economic situation.
  • A majority of respondents did not view sanctions as having a negative effect on the economy, though a significant number viewed sanctions as having a negative impact. Women, poorer respondents, and those most comfortable with the survey rated the impact of sanctions as most negative.
  • Respondents were divided on the issue of nuclear weapons, with a significant portion favoring their development. Those most comfortable with the survey, men, and those with the highest level of education expressed the most opposition to development of nuclear weapons. The lower classes and those with the lowest level of education supported the development of nuclear weapons.
  • A majority of respondents expressing an opinion opposed the reestablishment of ties with the United States. Women and less-educated respondents were least likely to favor the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but those most comfortable with the survey were more likely to favor such reestablishment.
  • In general, gender and education level were important predictors of attitudes. Women and less-educated respondents tended to voice views on security and overall relations that were unfavorable to the United States. Men and those with greater social means tended to be more favorably inclined.
  • Views of historical and current events in U.S.-Iranian relations did not correlate substantially with attitudes toward the reestablishment of relations. Rather, personalized views of the American people and the Obama administration played a more-significant role in preferences regarding the reestablishment of relations with the United States.
          The findings suggest that many of the Islamic Republic’s policies, including opposition
to U.S. interests and the pursuit of a nuclear civilian and (possibly) nuclear weapon capability, were supported by a significant portion of the Iranian population. It should be noted, however, that 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.

          The extent of popular support for Iranian government policies revealed by respondents
may be due to the Islamic Republic’s consistent efforts to sway public opinion through its
control of most forms of media. The survey revealed that Iranians were highly reliant on state-controlled media and educational sources and did not have extensive access to other sources of information that may provide a positive picture of the United States.3 U.S. broadcasts to Iran and the provision of antifiltering technology to Iranian web users may be beneficial in this regard. In addition, we recommend that policymakers not call particular attention to more-distant historical events in their communications with the Iranian population, as Iranian public opinion tends to focus on personalized images of the Obama administration and of the American people rather than on past events.4 Our results also suggest that it is worth consider-ing how opinions differ across subgroups of the Iranian population—such as men and women, those with different educational backgrounds, and those of different classes—when crafting communications meant for the Iranian public.
Sara Beth Elson co-authored this report.

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