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Monday, May 23, 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 materiel assistance to armed groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Palestinian group Hamas, and to Lebanese Hezbollah. Throughout its first year, the Obama Administration offered 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, 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, after failing to obtain Iran’s agreement to implement a compromise outlined on October 1, 2009, the Administration worked during 2001 to expand international economic sanctions against Iran. Major sanctions were imposed on Iran by the 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 attended December 6-7, 2010, talks in Geneva with the six powers negotiating with Iran, but no substantive progress was reported. Nor was there progress at subsequent talks in Turkey on January 21-22, 2011, and an exchange of letters between Iran and the six powers during February-May 2011 has not produced an agreement for a new meeting. U.S. officials indicate that additional pressure could be forthcoming, although with no particular timeframe.

Subsequent to the January 2011 nuclear talks (and in the context of the public reactivation of the Green movement and popular uprisings throughout the Middle East in 2011) the Administration has increased its public support of the Green movement. Although some in the 112
th Congress believe the United States should do more to support the democracy movement in Iran, there are no indications the Administration plans to provide direct, material support to the Green movement. Nor has the Administration ruled out further diplomacy with Iran on the nuclear or other issues, such as Afghanistan stability.

Others in and outside Congress believe that the U.S. focus should remain on pressing Iran economically and diplomatically. Sanctions, by some accounts, have slowed Iran’s nuclear program directly and may be contributing to a growing schism between Iran’s Supreme Leader and its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 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 Iran’s nuclear program has, at least temporarily, quieted discussion in Israeli and 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. 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: May 13, 2011
Number of Pages: 72
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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