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Monday, November 8, 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 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 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 caused the Administration to shift toward building multilateral support for additional economic sanctions against Iran. The Administration efforts bore fruit throughout the summer of 2010 with the adoption of new sanctions by the U.N. Security Council (Resolution 1929), the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and other countries, using much of the authorities of Resolution 1929. Additional measures designed to convince foreign firms to exit the Iranian market were contained in U.S. legislation passed in June 2010 (the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, P.L. 111-195). 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. As of October 2010, Iran has indicated a willingness to return to substantive talks with the international community, although it has not advanced any new proposals to allay international concerns about its nuclear program.

Many observers assess that the U.S., U.N., and other “national measures” 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 has not ruled out military action to try to set Iran’s nuclear program back. The Administration also has stepped up arms sales and engagement with regional states that might be helpful to contain Iranian power, were Iran’s nuclear program to advance dramatically. 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. Congressional resolutions and legislation since mid-2009 show growing congressional support for steps to enhance the opposition’s prospects, but Obama Administration officials say that believe that the opposition’s prospects are enhanced by a low U.S. public profile on any unrest. 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: October 26, 2010
Number of Pages: 69
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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