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Friday, August 10, 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 with Iran has taken hold since late 2011 as Iran’s nuclear enrichment program continues to advance and as the government of Israel has asserted that it might take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy and sanctions do not soon yield an agreement that ensures that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon.

The heightened tensions follow the Obama Administration’s assembly of 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: December 2010 and January 2011 talks with the six powers negotiating with Iran yielded no progress. In early 2012, Iran began uranium enrichment at a deep underground facility near Qom to a level of 20% enrichment. 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 that went into full effect on July 1, 2012—the regime has begun to acknowledge significant economic pressure. Iran’s leaders returned to talks and three rounds took place—April 13-14, 2012, in Istanbul; May 23-24, 2012, in Baghdad; and June 18-19, 2012, in Moscow. The talks yielded no breakthroughs, but delved extensively into the two sides’ positions—the crux of which would be an end to Iran’s enrichment to 20% purity in exchange for substantial sanctions relief. Technical talks were held on July 3, 2012, with further talks between Iranian and EU negotiators on July 24, 2012, that reportedly yielded a preliminary recommendation to hold another round of high level talks.

Aside from the nuclear issue, 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.

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 threatened. There are few outward signs that the opposition in Iran or in exile have gained traction against the regime, even though international sanctions are causing clear public frustration over deteriorating economic conditions. The reformist boycott of the March 2, 2012, parliamentary elections 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. It is likely that only hardliners will be significant candidates in the next presidential election to be held in June 2013.

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.

Date of Report: August 2, 2012
Number of Pages: 86
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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