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Monday, October 4, 2010

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The Obama Administration views Iran as a major threat to U.S. national security interests, a perception is 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. Particularly 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 toward building multilateral support for strict economic sanctions against Iran. The Administration efforts bore fruit on June 9, 2009 when a U.N. Security Council was adopted (Resolution 1929) that required countries to take a number of significant steps against Iran, including banning major arms sales to Iran, and authorized a number of additional significant steps. During July-September 2010, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and other countries announced multilateral sanctions against Iran that use much of the authorities of Resolution 1929, and which also supports elements of U.S. legislations passed in June 2010 (the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, P.L. 11-195). Still, the Administration and its partners assert that these sanctions are intended to pave the way for successful diplomacy with Iran to limit its nuclear program.

Many observers assess that the U.S., U.N., and other “national” sanctions enacted since mid-2010 are pressing Iran economically. However, because the sanctions have not and might not cause 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. Other options include methods to contain Iran if it does become a nuclear armed power. Some believe that only domestic opposition in Iran, which in late 2009 appeared to pose a potentially serious challenge to the regime’s grip on power, may provide a 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: September 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 70
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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