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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

  Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The Obama Administration has not changed the Bush Administration's characterization of Iran as 0 "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. In its first year, the Obama Administration altered the U.S. approach for reducing the Iranian threat by expanding direct diplomatic engagement with Iran's government and by offering Iran's leaders an alternative vision of closer integration with and acceptance by the West. To try to convince Iranian leaders of peaceful U.S. intent, the Obama Administration downplayed discussion of potential U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities and has repeatedly insisted that the United States did not directly or materially support the domestic opposition movement that emerged following Iran's June 12, 2009, presidential election.

Even at the height of the Green movement protests in late 2009, 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 did it adequately respond to international concerns about possible work on a nuclear weapons program. These concerns led to an Administration shift toward building a multilateral coalition for additional U.N. sanctions, and apparently prompted the Defense Department to try to develop additional options for preventing or containing a nuclear Iran. The Administration efforts bore fruit on May 18, 2010, when it announced an agreement among permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that would authorize, but not require, countries to take a number of significant steps against Iran, including inspect ships suspected of carrying equipment for Iran's nuclear program. The announcement represented a U.S. rejection of a May 16, 2010, tentative agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey to implement most features of the October 1, 2009, agreement.

The newly agreed-to U.N. Security Council sanctions would build on those in place since 2006. Those 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. In the 111th Congress, conference action is underway on 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.

Some believe that the domestic opposition, which in late 2009 appeared to pose a potentially serious challenge to the regime's grip on power, may eventually present the United States with an opportunity to see the regime replaced or modified substantially. Obama 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. 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: May 24, 2010
Number of Pages: 65
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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