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Friday, December 23, 2011

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The Obama Administration identifies Iran as a major threat to U.S. national security interests. This perception is generated by suspicions of Iran’s intentions for its nuclear program - heightened by a November 8, 2011, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report - as well as by Iran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East and in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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. In October 2011, U.S. officials accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.

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 on a “two-track strategy” to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran while maintaining offers of further engagement. 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 seemed to increase in 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 was arranged and the November 2011 IAEA report reduced the prospect for new talks and increased international support for additional sanctions. This tend has been accelerated by a row between Iran and Britain that included the ransacking of Britain’s embassy in Tehran on November 29 by youths tacitly backed by Iran’s security forces—an action that has furthered Tehran’s isolation.

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. That effort has been broadly supported in the international community. Some in the 112th Congress, aside from supporting additional economic sanctions against Iran, 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, including pending Iran sanctions legislation, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions; and CRS Report RL34544, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status.

Date of Report: December 15, 2011
Number of Pages: 82
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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