Search Penny Hill Press

Friday, February 17, 2012

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. Tensions have been particularly elevated since Iran’s late December 2011 threat to try to choke off much of the world’s oil supplies by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz—a reaction to the imposition of significant sanctions against Iran’s vital exports of oil. 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 sense of imminent crisis with Iran which greeted the beginning of 2012 follows three years in which the Obama Administration first offered Iran’s leaders consistent and sustained engagement in exchange for limits to its nuclear program but, since 2010, has emphasized pressuring Iran through economic sanctions. 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 late 2011, the Administration, Congress, and U.S. partners increased sanctions significantly by attempting to cut off transactions with Iran’s Central Bank and through the European Union’s January 23, 2012, imposition of an embargo on purchases of Iranian oil. The Administration also maintains a 40,000-50,000 troop military presence in the Persian Gulf, and it has stepped up arms sales to regional states that share the U.S. suspicions of Iran’s intentions.

None of the pressure has, to date, altered Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear program. Iran attended December 2010 and January 2011 talks with the six powers negotiating with Iran, but no progress was reported at any of these meetings. However, at the end of 2011, as sanctions were being added, there were indications that the regime was concerned about the growing effect of international sanctions on the public and on the upcoming March 2, 2012, parliamentary elections. The regime has arrested some activists whom they suspect might try to spark unrest during the election campaign—a fear heightened by the boycott of the poll by reformist groups. Iran’s leaders responded not only with threats to commerce in the Strait of Hormuz, but also stated a willingness to enter into new nuclear talks. Iran also, for the first time, agreed to discuss with the IAEA the allegations that it has worked on nuclear weapons designs. At the same time, it announced it would begin uranium enrichment at a deep underground facility near Qom.

Iran policy also has evolved in the context of the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East in 2011 and the failure of Iran’s own uprising in 2009. The United States has increased public criticism of Iran’s human rights record, an effort 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 2010-2011. 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: January 30, 2012
Number of Pages: 85
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.