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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman   

Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The Obama Administration has continued the longstanding characterization of Iran as a "profound threat to U.S. national security interests." This threat perception has been 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 previous U.S. approach 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 repeatedly insisted that it did not seek to change Iran's regime. It held to this position even at the height of the protests by the domestic opposition "Green movement" that emerged following Iran's June 12, 2009, presidential election.

Iran's refusal to accept the details of an October 1, 2009 tentative agreement to lessen concerns about its nuclear intentions—coupled with its crackdown on the Green movement—caused the Administration, in 2010, to shift away from engaging Iran's leaders and toward building multilateral support for economic sanctions against 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 banning major arms sales to Iran and authorizing inspection of ships suspected of carrying equipment for Iran's nuclear program. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 containing these provisions was passed on June 9 by a vote of 12-2 with one abstention. The Resolution represented a rejection of a May 17, 2010, agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey to implement major features of the October 1, 2009, agreement. This U.N. resolution was followed by congressional passage of major new sanctions legislation—P.L. 111-195, signed July 1, 2010.

Some of Iran's leaders are expressing concerns about Iran's apparently growing economic isolation. Numerous foreign firms have been announcing their exit from the Iranian market, and U.S. allies are imposing new sanctions to align both with the U.N. resolutions as well as with some U.S. unilateral sanctions. However, because the sanctions have not caused Iran to fundamentally alter its commitment to its nuclear program, the Administration reportedly has revived deliberations of possible military action to try to set Iran's nuclear program back, or to undertake options to contain Iran. Some believe that Iran's domestic opposition, which in late 2009 appeared to pose a potentially serious challenge to the regime's grip on power, may provide the only clear opportunity to reduce the potential threat of a nuclear Iran. 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. Others maintain that the prospects for the domestic opposition which has been largely absent from the streets in 2010, are poor, and that other options are fraught with risks, and that the Administration should return to a focus on reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. For further information, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions; CRS Report R40849, Iran: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy; and CRS Report RL34544, Iran's Nuclear Program: Status

Date of Report: June 23, 2010
Number of Pages: 69
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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