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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

President Obama has said his Administration shares the goals of previous administrations to contain Iran's strategic capabilities and regional influence. The Obama Administration has not changed the Bush Administration's characterization of Iran as a "profound threat to U.S. national security interests," a perception generated not only by Iran's nuclear program but also by its military assistance to armed groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Palestinian group Hamas, and to Lebanese Hezbollah. However, the Obama Administration has formulated approaches to achieve those goals that differ from those of its predecessor by expanding direct diplomatic engagement with Iran's government and by downplaying discussion of potential U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. 

With the nuclear issue unresolved, the domestic unrest in Iran that has occurred since alleged wide-scale fraud was committed in Iran's June 12, 2009, presidential election has presented the Administration with a potential choice of continuing the engagement or backing the opposition "Green movement." In December 2009, Administration statements shifted toward greater public support of the Green movement, but Administration officials appear to believe that the opposition's prospects are enhanced by a low U.S. public profile on the unrest. Congressional resolutions and legislation since mid-2009 show growing congressional support for steps to enhance the opposition's prospects. Yet, some experts saw the regime's successful effort to prevent the holding of a large Green movement protest on "revolution day," February 11, 2010, as an indication that the Administration should return to its engagement efforts. 

Even at the height of the Green movement protests, the Obama Administration did not forego diplomatic options to blunt Iran's nuclear progress and says it remains open to a nuclear deal if Iran fully accepts a framework Iran tentatively agreed to in multilateral talks on October 1, 2009. However, Iran did not accept the technical details of this by the notional deadline of the end of 2009, nor has it adequately responded to international concerns about possible work on a nuclear weapons program. These concerns have sparked renewed multilateral discussions of more U.N. sanctions. New sanctions under negotiation would target members and companies of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is not only a pillar of Iran's nuclear program but is also the main element used by the regime to crack down against the protesters. Still, China, a major investor in Iran and consumer of its oil, is said to be resisting new steps to pressure Iran economically and politically. 

Additional U.N. Security Council sanctions would build on those put in place since 2006. These sanctions generally are targeted against WMD-related trade with Iran, but also ban Iran from transferring arms outside Iran and restrict dealings with some Iranian banks. Separate U.S. efforts to persuade European governments to curb trade with, investment in, and credits for Iran, and to convince foreign banks not to do business with Iran, are intended to compound the U.N. pressure. Each chamber in the 111th Congress has passed separate legislation to try to curb sales to Iran of gasoline, which many Members believe could help pressure Iran into a nuclear settlement or undermine the regime's popularity even further. Others believe such steps could help the regime rebuild its support by painting the international community as punitive against the Iranian people. 


For further information, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman;

CRS Report R40849, Iran: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy, coordinated by Casey L. Addis; and 

CRS Report RL34544, Iran's Nuclear Program: Status
, by Paul K. Kerr.



Date of Report: March 11, 2010
Number of Pages: 64
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $19.95

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