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Tuesday, July 26, 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 uncertainty about Iran’s intentions for its 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. However, after observing a crackdown on peaceful protests in Iran in 2009, and failing to obtain Iran’s agreement to implement a compromise outlined on October 1, 2009, the Administration has worked during 2010 and 2011 to increase economic and political pressure on 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 sanctions are 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 did not produce agreement for a new meeting. U.S. officials indicate that additional pressure could be forthcoming, although with no stipulated timeframe, while also stating that the “door is open” to further nuclear talks.

Subsequent to the failed January 2011 nuclear talks with Iran (and in the context of the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East in 2011) the Administration has increased its public support of the Iranian opposition “Green movement.” Some in the 112
th Congress believe the United States should do more to support the democracy movement in Iran, but there are no indications the Administration plans to provide it with direct, material support. While trying to crush its own dissident movement, the Iranian leadership has sought to protect its ally, President Bashar al- Assad of Syria, from being overcome by protests. In line with long-standing policy of supporting regional Shiite movements, Iran may be helping Shiite factions in Bahrain that have participated in a broad but thus far unsuccessful uprising there.

Others in and outside the 112
th 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 an increasingly open power struggle between Iran’s Supreme Leader and its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But, sanctions have not caused Iran to fundamentally alter its nuclear negotiating position. 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, coordinated by Casey L. Addis; and CRS Report RL34544, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.

Date of Report: June 12, 2011
Number of Pages: 76
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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