More Iranians say their country should not pursue nuclear weapons than the number that believe Iran should arm itself with nukes, according to Gallup poll results released Monday.
Although 56% of Iranians approve of their country’s nonmilitary nuclear programs, just 34% support the idea that Tehran should develop nuclear weapons, with 41% saying they disapprove of the idea, according to the survey.
Iran's leaders say they have no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons -- indeed, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate holds that Tehran has taken no decision to do so, despite steadily accumulating the technical capacity to build such weapons. And Iran's media reported in 2005 that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had issued a religious edict denouncing as un-Islamic the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons.
The Gallup poll numbers indicate Iranian citizens remain divided over whether their country is well served by heeding such an edict.
The poll results come just a day before Iranian negotiators sit down with representatives of the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany to discuss proposals under which Iran would agree to set limits on its nuclear work in exchange for the lifting of suffocating sanctions.
Iran claims that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature and that enriching uranium to 20 percent — just a technical step away from weapons grade — is done exclusively to create medical isotopes. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspected Iran’s nuclear facilities, confirms that Iran has converted about half its stockpile into forms difficult to turn into weapons-grade fuel.
The poll, which was conducted in May and June in Iran and drew 1,000 respondents, also found that 58% were either “very hopeful” or “somewhat hopeful” that the upcoming talks in Geneva would culminate in some sort of agreement acceptable to both sides.
Rising optimism on both sides of the negotiations is widely seen to reflect thawing relations between U.S. and Iran since the June election of Rouhani, himself a former nuclear negotiator. He has made efforts to re-establish contact with the U.S. — most notably a 15-minute phone call with President Barack Obama that marked the first direct contact between the two countries’ heads of government in 30 years — in sharp contrast to his hard-line predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran and the West have been in a stalemate over the nuclear issue for a decade, but Rouhani’s surprise election and comments from high-level Iranian officials indicate Iran may be prepared to move forward.
“We have some surplus, you know, the amount that we don’t need. But over that, we can have some discussions,” Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament, told The Associated Press last week. The country’s deputy foreign minister later walked back those comments but reaffirmed that Iran would be willing to negotiate on various aspects of enrichment.
The U.S. and its allies remain cautiously optimistic for the first round of talks with the Rouhani administration.
“The world has heard a lot from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community, and President Obama believes we should test that assertion,” a White House spokeswoman said after Obama’s phone call with Rouhani.
Separate Gallup poll results released in February found that a majority of Iranians believed sanctions were hurting their compatriots’ livelihoods “a great deal.” That poll also found that 47% of Iranians found the U.S. “most responsible” for the sanctions, with only 10% blaming the Iranian government.
The U.S., United Nations and European Union have all imposed sanctions on Iran. An E.U. oil embargo adopted last year is estimated to be costing Iran $4 billion to $8 billion per month.
In February, Obama signed into law yet another round of sanctions, increasing economic pressure on Iran to reconsider its stance on nuclear development.
But some analysts say the poll questions on weapons may be missing how Iranians see the question of the country's nuclear development.
“It’s a matter of principles,” said Rasmus Christian Elling, an Iran expert and an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “The public debate in Iran is not about weapons but about their country’s right to uranium enrichment and peaceful use of nuclear energy.”
Elling said that while most Iranians support their country’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, “some may think that the political leaders are sometimes too willing to pay too high a price for the uranium-enrichment program.”
Talks are set to begin Tuesday in Geneva.