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Friday, October 7, 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 by uncertainty about Iran’s intentions for its nuclear program as well as its materiel assistance to armed groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Palestinian group Hamas, and to Lebanese Hezbollah. Since mid-2011, U.S. officials have openly accused Iran of stepping up support for Iraqi Shiite militias that have attacked U.S. forces. 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 diplomatic pressure on Iran. Significant additional 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. Further measures intended 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 those 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 a willingness to engage in further nuclear talks. The prospects for new talks increased in August 2011 as a result of Iran-Russia discussions of new formulas for compromise, which were followed by Iranian official statements suggesting potential Iranian acceptance of some widely discussed international proposals on the issue. Some in and outside the 112th Congress hold out no hope for an acceptable compromise and believe that the United States and its partners should increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran. 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 even more vocal in supporting the democracy movement in Iran, and perhaps 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 28, 2011
Number of Pages: 76
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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