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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The issue of Iran and its nuclear program has emerged as a top priority for the Obama Administration. A sense of potential crisis in late 2011 and early 2012 was generated by growing suspicions in the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is not for purely peaceful purposes, and the determination of the government of Israel, in particular, that it might take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if its progress is not soon halted.

The heightened tensions follow three years in which the Obama Administration has assembled a broad international coalition to pressure Iran through economic sanctions while also offering sustained engagement with Iran if it verifiably assures the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful. 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. In early 2012, Iran began uranium enrichment at a deep underground facility near Qom to a level of 20% enrichment. However, since the beginning of 2012, as significant multilateral sanctions have been added on Iran’s oil exports—including an oil purchase embargo by the European Union to go into full effect by July 1, 2012—there are growing indications that the regime feels economic pressure. Iran’s leaders have responded not only with threats to commerce in the Strait of Hormuz, but an acceptance of new nuclear talks without preconditions. Talks between Iran and the six negotiating powers took place on April 13-14, 2012; the talks yielded no substantive results but built sufficient confidence to schedule another round on May 23, in Baghdad, and to lower the prospects for Israeli or U.S. military action.

The United States has long seen a threat to U.S. interests posed by Iran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East and in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. officials 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. However, to date, these issues have not generated the same sense of crisis that the nuclear issue has.

The Administration and many outside experts also perceive that the legitimacy and popularity of Iran’s regime is in decline, although not to the point where the regime’s grip on power is imminently threatened. The regime has sought to use the international pressure to rally the public to its side, playing on nationalist sentiment to encourage high turnout in the March 2, 2012, parliamentary elections. The boycott of the poll by reformist groups rendered the election a contest between factions supporting either President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i. Khamene’i supporters were elected overwhelmingly, helping him solidify his control over day-to-day governance. Over the past two years, 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, assert that the United States should provide additional political support to the democracy movement in Iran, despite the relative quiescence of the opposition since early 2010. 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 R40094, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance with International Obligations, by Paul K. Kerr.