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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The Obama Administration, as have the several previous Administrations, has articulated U.S. policy goals as ensuring that Iran does not become a nuclear armed state and reducing Iran's ability to undermine U.S. objectives and allies in the Middle East. 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 altered the U.S. approach to achieve those goals by expanding direct diplomatic engagement with Iran's government and by offering Iran's leaders a vision of closer integration with and acceptance by the West. To try to convince Iranian leaders of peaceful U.S. intent, the Obama Administration has downplayed discussion of potential U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities and has repeatedly insisted that the United States is not directly or materially supporting the domestic opposition movement that emerged following Iran's June 12, 2009, presidential election. 

Yet, the domestic opposition—which at times has appeared to pose a potentially serious challenge to the regime's grip on power—has presented the Administration with additional policy options. In December 2009, Administration statements shifted toward greater public support of the domestic opposition "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. 

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. 

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: April 1, 2010
Number of Pages: 65
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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