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Monday, September 12, 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. U.S. officials are highly critical of what they say is steppedup Iranian support for Iraqi Shiite militias that have attacked U.S. forces, who are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. U.S. officials also accuse Iran of helping Syria’s leadership use force and other methods to try to defeat a growing popular opposition movement, and of taking advantage of Shiite majority unrest against the Sunni-led, pro-U.S. government of Bahrain.

The Obama Administration initially 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. 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 has worked since early 2010 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 a willingness to engage in further nuclear talks. The prospects for new talks increased in August 2011 as a result of Iran-Russia talks on new formulas for compromise. 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 force 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.

In 2011, in the context of the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East, and perhaps addressing criticism that it did not sufficiently support the popular uprising in Iran in 2009, the Administration has increased its public support of the Iranian opposition “Green Movement.” Some in the 112th Congress believe the United States should become more vocal in supporting the democracy movement in Iran, and perhaps even provide material support to Iranian activists, but there are no indications the Administration plans to do so. For further information, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions; and CRS Report RL34544, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.

Date of Report: September 2, 2011
Number of Pages: 75
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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