This week marks 34 years since the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis, and over that time period the relationship between Iran and the United States could be considered cold at best.  After decades of animosity, economic sanctions, and depleted diplomatic relations, the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani provides an opportunity to review how American attitudes could affect the relationship between the United States and Iran moving forward.

President Rouhani’s outreach towards Washington, including the first direct contact with a U.S. president since the hostage crisis, has been seen by some as an effort to renew for diplomacy.   However, protests from anti-American hard-liners in Iran aside, efforts to improve U.S./Iran relations have a formidable path ahead given current U.S. sentiment towards Iran.

In June 2013, right before President Rouhani was elected, 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans considered Iran an “enemy” of the United States, while 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} considered them “unfriendly” and only 10{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} considered them “an ally” or “friendly” (Gallup, June 2013).  To give perspective to how poor current opinion is regarding U.S./Iran relations, in 1982, one year after the U.S. hostages returned home, 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans considered Iran an “enemy” of the U.S., 29{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} considered them “unfriendly,” and 16{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} considered them “an ally” or “friendly” (Harris Survey, Jan. 1982) – signaling how little public sentiment has shifted in the past 30 years.   Even at the height of the hostage situation in 1980, 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans considered Iran an “enemy” (Harris Survey, July. 1980) – only 9{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} higher than earlier this year.

Further, based on the chart put together by Gallup, more than three-fourths of American’s have consistently held “unfavorable” views of Iran since the Gulf War (Gallup, 1989-2013).

chart 1

In addition to the long period of mutual diplomatic and rhetorical hostility and Iran’s potential threat to America’s ally, Israel, the crux of the problem is Iran’s nuclear program and how it relates to U.S. security and interests.  Earlier this year, a near unanimous 93{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans opposed Iran acquiring nuclear weapons – contributing to near global opposition, consisting of Germany (96{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} oppose), Israel (96{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), France (94{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Britain (89{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Jordan (79{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Russia (75{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Egypt (73{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Turkey (69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), China (62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), and Lebanon (59{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) (Pew Research Center, March 2013).  The opposition in the U.S. is largely fueled by threats a nuclear Iran may pose for the U.S., as fully 83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} consider the development of nuclear weapons in Iran to be a “critical threat” for the U.S. in the next 10 years (Gallup, Feb. 2013).

Further, despite a recent shift in U.S. opinion towards non-intervention with our military, the perceived critical threat from Iran helps explain why 58{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans said they favor taking military action against Iran in order to prevent them from producing a nuclear weapon (CBS news/New York Times Poll, June 2013). However, there is not an urgency to do so as only 15{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believe Iran is a threat to the U.S. that requires military action now, and a majority of Americans (59{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believe it can be contained for now (CBS news/New York Times Poll, June 2013).

Americans still strongly favor the use of diplomacy to resolve the ongoing issues with Iran’s nuclear program.  Three-quarters (76{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans favor direct diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Iran in an attempt to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while only 21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} oppose (CNN/ORC Poll, Sept 2013).  This includes a majority of Republicans (68{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} favor), Independents (72{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), and Democrats (87{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).  However, it is important to note that there was a willingness for diplomacy even under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency where 78{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} favored direct negotiations and 22{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} opposed them (CNN/ORC Poll, Oct. 2009), so the change in presidency this year has not spurred a renewed preference in engaging in diplomatic talks.

In fact, even with President Rouhani’s gestures towards reform and improved relations with the U.S., most Americans (41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believe relations between the U.S. and Iran will stay about the same in the next few years, while only 22{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} feel it will get better (CBS news/New York Times Poll, Sept 2013).

It is difficult to ultimately determine what domestic pressures President Rouhani will be met with as there continues to be outreach between Washington and Tehran.  Iranians have been hit hard by economic sanctions put in place by the U.S. and other countries in the past few years, where 56{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Iranians say the sanctions hurt Iranians’ livelihood, and a plurality (47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) feel the U.S. is most responsible for the sanctions (Gallup, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013).  Only 10{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Iranians feel their government is most responsible for the sanctions and few blame Israel (9{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or Western European counties (7{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) the most (Gallup, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013).  As a result, only 15{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Iranians approve of the United States’ leadership as of earlier this year (Gallup, May/June 2013).

President Rouhani’s first term is still in its infancy and as diplomatic overtures and outreach continue, more will come to light about how the relationship between the U.S. and Iran may evolve after decades of contention.   There is a strong preference for diplomacy in this situation among Americans, but allowing Iran access to nuclear weapons is something they will not tolerate.  President Rouhani’s entry into office offers opportunity, but time will tell if progress made can be maintained amid the grinding of conflicting interests.

Public Opinion Strategies