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Friday, August 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. As of mid-2011, U.S. officials are increasingly critical of what they say is stepped-up Iranian support for Iraqi Shiite militias that have attacked U.S. forces, who are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

To try to address the threat from Iran, the Obama Administration offered Iran’s leaders consistent and sustained engagement with the potential for closer integration with and acceptance by the West in exchange for limits to its nuclear program. However, after observing a crackdown on peaceful protests in Iran in 2009, and failing to obtain Iran’s agreement to implement an October 2009 tentative nuclear compromise, the Administration 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).

Perhaps hoping to avoid additional sanctions, Iran attended December 6-7, 2010, talks in Geneva with the six powers negotiating with Iran. However, indicating that Iran had not fundamentally altered its position, no substantive progress was reported at that or at subsequent talks in Turkey on January 21-22, 2011. 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. Some in and outside the 112th Congress hold out no hope for further talks and believe that U.S. and international economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran should increase. Additional sanctions, according to this view, might yet succeed in forcing a change of Iran’s nuclear policy, and help widen an increasingly open power struggle between Iran’s Supreme Leader and its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Administration has stepped up arms sales to regional states that share the U.S. suspicions of Iran’s intentions, but there does not appear to be consideration of U.S., Israeli, or Persian Gulf military action against Iran.

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 112th Congress believe the United States should do more to support the democracy movement in Iran in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, but there are no indications the Administration plans to provide Iran’s opposition 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. For further information, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions; and CRS Report RL34544, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.

Date of Report: August 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 75
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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