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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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 consistent and sustained engagement with the potential for closer integration with and acceptance by the West. To try to convince Iranian leaders of peaceful U.S. intent and respect for Iran’s history and stature in the region, the Obama Administration downplayed any discussion of potential U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities or efforts to try to change Iran’s regime.

The Administration held to this position even at the height of the protests by the domestic opposition “Green movement” that took place for the six months following Iran’s June 12, 2009, presidential election but largely ceased in 2010. However, as of February 2011, the Administration may be shifting to increased support of the Green movement. No nuclear agreement appears within reach with Iran, the Green movement has reactivated in the wake of the February 2011 ousting of Egyptian President Mubarak by a youth-led democracy movement similar to the Green movement, and many in the 112
th Congress believe the United States should support virtually all popular democracy movements in the Middle East, including in Iran.

During 2010, the Administration worked successfully to build multilateral support for additional economic sanctions against Iran. That followed Iran’s refusal to accept the details of an October 1, 2009, tentative agreement on nuclear issues—a framework that was the product of nearly a year of diplomacy with Iran. Major sanctions were imposed on Iran by U.N. Security Council (Resolution 1929), as well as related “national measures” by the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and other countries. Additional measures designed to compel 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 were intended to support diplomacy with Iran to limit its nuclear program. Iran accepted December 6-7, 2010, talks in Geneva with the six power contact group negotiating with Iran, but no substantive progress was reported. Nor was progress made at follow-on talks in Turkey on January 21-22, 2011, and no further sets of talks have been agreed. U.S. officials indicate that additional pressure could be forthcoming.

There is broad agreement that the U.S., U.N., and other sanctions enacted since mid-2010 are pressing Iran economically and, in conjunction with other measures, have even slowed Iran’s nuclear program directly. Iran is reacting to the economic pressure, in part, by trying to restructure its economy to reduce subsidies and suppress demand for such imported items as gasoline. The apparent slowing of its nuclear program has reduced open discussion in Israel or in U.S. expert circles about using military action to set Iran’s nuclear program back. The Administration has stepped up arms sales to regional states that share the U.S. suspicions of Iran’s intentions. Some believe that only a victory by the Green movement can permanently reduce the multiplicity of threats posed by Iran’s regime. 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: March 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 72
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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