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Monday, September 17, 2012

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Addressing the perceived threat posed by Iran to a broad range of U.S. interests has been 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. That Iranian progress has caused the government of Israel to assert that it might take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities unless the United States provides assurances that it will act, militarily if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. 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.

To counter the perceived threat from Iran, the Obama Administration has orchestrated broad international pressure on Iran through economic sanctions, while also offering Iran sustained engagement if it verifiably assures the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful. 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 nuclear talks with six powers in April 2012 after a one year hiatus. Three rounds of talks held in April, in May, and in June yielded no breakthroughs, but did explore a potential compromise under which Iran might end uranium enrichment to 20% purity (a level not technically far from weapons grade) in exchange for substantial sanctions relief. Technical talks were held on July 3, 2012, with further conversations between Iranian and EU negotiators on July 24, and August 2, although still without a firm decision to hold another round of high level talks. The Administration expresses frustration that neither the pressure nor the diplomacy has, to date, altered Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear program, but it asserts that there is time and space for these policies to succeed before contemplation of other options, such as U.S. military action.

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.

The 112th Congress has supported additional economic sanctions against Iran, most recently with enactment of H.R. 1905 (P.L. 112-158), which expands sanctions against companies that conduct energy and financial transactions with Iran. Some in Congress assert that the United States should provide additional political support to the democracy movement in Iran. The Administration argues that it has done just that, in part by using recent authorities to sanction Iranian officials who suppress human rights in Iran. 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: September 5, 2012
Number of Pages: 87
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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