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Thursday, November 3, 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, and U.S. officials accused Iran in October 2011 of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. U.S. officials also accuse Iran of helping Syria’s leadership 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 any 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). In concert, the Administration has stepped up arms sales to regional states that share the U.S. suspicions of Iran’s intentions.

Perhaps hoping to avoid additional sanctions, Iran attended December 2010 and January 2011 talks with the six powers negotiating with Iran, but no substantive progress was reported at any of these meetings. The prospects for new talks have increased since August 2011 as a result of Iran- Russia discussions of new formulas for compromise, supplemented by Iranian official statements suggesting potential acceptance of some widely discussed international proposals. However, no date for new talks has been announced.

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. U.S. officials, particularly following the October 11, 2011, U.S. revelations of the alleged Iranian assassination plot, support additional economic pressure on Iran, perhaps by sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank. Administration officials couple that with a stated willingness to engage in further nuclear talks if Iran demonstrates a willingness to engage seriously. 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 criticism of Iran’s human rights record. Some in the 112th Congress believe the United States should provide additional vocal and material support to the democracy movement in Iran, despite its outward quiescence in most of 2011. The Administration argues that it has supported the opposition through civil society and other programs, and by using recent authorities to sanction Iranian officials who suppress human rights in Iran and help Syria repress human rights. For further information, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions; and CRS Report RL34544, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.

Date of Report: October 26, 2011
Number of Pages:78
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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