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Monday, February 27, 2012

Unrest in Syria and U.S. Sanctions Against the Asad Regime


Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Christopher M. Blanchard
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs


This report analyzes the current unrest in Syria and the U.S. response to the Syrian government’s crackdown against demonstrators. It also provides background information on U.S. sanctions against the Asad regime and its supporters.

The confrontations and violence that swept through Syria in 2011 have escalated to the edge of civil war in early 2012. President Bashar al Asad and his family members refuse to leave power, despite internal demands and intense international pressure calling for political change and an end to violence against civilians. Instead, the regime has offered limited reforms and is meeting popular protests and armed opposition attacks with overwhelming force.

President Obama and his Administration have been calling for Asad’s resignation since August 2011 and have been vocal advocates for United Nations Security Council action to facilitate his removal. However, with the council deadlocked and Russia and China showing no public willingness to endorse a military intervention in Syria, the Administration may be searching for new ways to accelerate Asad’s departure.

Some Members of Congress and nongovernmental observers argue that the recent violence demonstrates the futility of expecting any substantive reform by Syrian authorities and suggests that U.S. policy should shift toward outright confrontation and embrace regime change as a policy goal. While the Administration has called for President Asad to step down, arguments in favor of regime change have been accompanied by wariness about what the implications of confrontation would be, and what the implications of regime change would be for regional security, particularly in light of the delicate sectarian balance in the Levant and a lack of established U.S. relationships with government and nongovernment actors in Syria. Other lawmakers have urged a gradual approach of increasing multilateral political condemnation and economic pressure against the Asad regime.

For now, the major question before concerned international actors is how to support Syria’s opposition in a supportive manner that circumvents the United Nations Security Council veto of Russia and China, assuming both nations do not change their position on Syria. Even a recent Arab League-approved resolution continued to seek U.N. approval by calling on the Security Council to authorize a joint Arab-United Nations force to “supervise the execution of a ceasefire.”



Date of Report: February 1
6, 2012
Number of Pages:
21
Order Number: RL33
487
Price: $29.95

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Egypt in Transition


Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

On February 11, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak resigned from the presidency after 29 years in power. For 18 days, a popular peaceful uprising spread across Egypt and ultimately forced Mubarak to cede power to the military. In the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—made up entirely of military officers who enjoyed leading positions under Mubarak—has exercised executive authority directly and via an interim cabinet. The SCAF oversaw a March 2011 referendum that approved amendments to Egypt’s constitution, issued a constitutional declaration, and has also issued new laws on the formation of political parties and the conduct of parliamentary elections. The amended constitution lays out a transition framework in which the elected People’s Assembly and Shura Council will, in conjunction with the SCAF, select members for a 100-person constituent assembly to draft a new constitution subject to a referendum.

How Egypt transitions to a more democratic system in the months ahead will have major implications for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and for other countries in the region ruled by monarchs and dictators.

This report provides a brief overview of the transition underway and information on U.S. foreign aid to Egypt. U.S. policy toward Egypt has long been framed as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and sustaining the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Successive U.S. Administrations have viewed Egypt’s government as a moderating influence in the Middle East. U.S. policy makers are now grappling with complex questions about the future of U.S.-Egypt relations, and these debates are likely to influence consideration of appropriations and authorization legislation in the 112th Congress.



Date of Report: February 8, 2012
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL33003
Price: $29.95

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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

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kuwait: Security, Reform, and U.S. Policy


Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Kuwait has been pivotal to two decades of U.S. efforts to end a strategic threat posed by Iraq and then to stabilize that country in its transition to democracy. Because of its close cooperation with the United States, Kuwait is central to U.S. efforts to remain engaged in the northern Persian Gulf region following the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. However, the fragility of Kuwait’s government could complicate U.S. efforts to use it as a centerpiece of post-withdrawal strategy for the Gulf. A further complication is that Kuwait’s relations with the current government of Iraq are hampered, in part, by long-standing territorial, economic, and political issues unresolved from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Kuwait is increasingly suspicious of Iranian intentions in the Gulf, which aligns Kuwait with U.S. efforts to contain Iranian power in the Gulf and prevent Iran from exerting undue influence in postwithdrawal Iraq. Still, Kuwait maintains relatively normal economic and political relations with Iran so as not to provoke Iran to try to empower pro-Iranian elements in Kuwait.

Kuwait’s ruling elites have been in a continuous power struggle for nearly six years, but Kuwait has not faced the mass popular unrest that other governments throughout the Middle East have faced in 2011. The disputes in Kuwait have taken the form of infighting between oppositionists in the elected National Assembly and the ruling Al Sabah family, primarily over the political and economic dominance of the Al Sabah. In March 2009, the infighting led to the second constitutional dissolution of the National Assembly in one year, setting up new parliamentary elections on May 16, 2009. That produced an Assembly that was considered more progovernment and included four women, the first to be elected to the Assembly in Kuwait since women were given the vote in 2005. However, over the subsequent two years, oppositionists in the Assembly continued to challenge the ruling family, producing two unsuccessful attempts to vote no confidence in Prime Minister Shaykh Nasser al-Muhammad al-Ahmad Al Sabah and forcing him to dismiss and rename a cabinet seven times since 2006. The cabinet formed on May 10, 2011, lasted less than one year before opposition allegations of official corruption fueled by popular protests forced the resignation of the government in late November 2011 and the constitutional suspension of the Assembly on December 6, 2011. Mandatory new Assembly elections were held on February 2, 2012, producing a body that is generally adversarial to the government and has strong Islamist influence.

Despite the infighting, and in contrast with Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and other Middle East countries in 2011, Kuwait is a relatively wealthy society where most citizens apparently do not want to risk their economic well-being to bring about the complete downfall of Al Sabah rule. At the popular level, demonstrations by opposition groups over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues have been relatively small and their demands limited to the formation of a constitutional monarchy in which the Assembly names a prime minister. The Assembly passage of a national budget in late June 2011—a budget loaded with subsidies and salary increases—appeared intended to quiet the unrest. The government also has used a measure of repression, including beatings and imprisonments.

On other regional issues, in part because of its leadership turmoil, Kuwait tends to defer to consensus positions within the Gulf Cooperation Council; this deference is evident in Kuwait’s stances on the Israel-Palestinian dispute as well as on the uprisings in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. On Bahrain, in March 2011, Kuwait joined a Gulf Cooperation Council intervention on the side of the government, but unlike Saudi Arabia and UAE, Kuwait sent naval and not ground forces.



Date of Report: February
8, 2012
Number of Pages:
25
Order Number: RS2
1513
Price: $29.95

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Iran Sanctions


Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The international coalition that is imposing progressively strict economic sanctions on Iran is broadening and deepening, with increasingly significant effect on Iran’s economy. The objective, not achieved to date, remains to try to compel Iran to verifiably confine its nuclear program to purely peaceful uses. As 2012 begins, Iran sees newly-imposed multilateral sanctions against its oil exports as a severe threat - to the point where Iran is threatening to risk armed conflict. Iran also has indicated receptivity to new nuclear talks in the hopes of reversing or slowing the implementation of the oil export-related sanctions. The energy sector provides nearly 70% of Iran’s government revenues. Iran’s alarm stems from the potential loss of oil sales as a result of: 
         A decision by the European Union on January 23, 2012, to wind down purchases of Iranian crude oil by July 1, 2012. EU countries buy about 20% of Iran’s oil exports. This action took into consideration an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s possible efforts to design a nuclear explosive device, and diplomatic and financial rifts with Britain, which caused the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran on November 30, 2011. 
         Decisions by other Iranian oil purchasers, particularly Japan and South Korea, to reduce purchases of Iranian oil. Those decisions are intended to comply with a provision of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 112-81, signed December 31, 2011) that prevents the opening of U.S. accounts by foreign banks that conduct transactions with Iran’s Central Bank—unless the parent country reduces substantially its purchases of Iranian oil. 
         The willingness of other oil producers with spare capacity, particularly Saudi Arabia, a strategic rival, to sell additional oil to countries cutting Iranian oil buys. 
         This confluence of policies has already begun to reduce Iran’s oil sales and might reduce them by as much as 40% (1 million barrels per day reduction out of 2.5 million barrels per day of sales). Iran is widely assessed as unable to economically sustain that level of lost oil sales. 
The signs of economic pressure on Iran are multiplying. The value of Iran’s rial has dropped precipitously since December 2011. Iranian leaders have admitted that Iran is virtually cut off from the international banking system and is increasingly trading through barter arrangements rather than hard currency exchange. The pullout from Iran by major international firms have slowed Iran’s efforts to modernize its energy sector and other sectors, rendering Iran unable to increase its oil production above 4.1 million barrels per day. Still, Iran has small amounts of natural gas exports; it had none at all before Iran opened its fields to foreign investment in 1996. Iran’s overall ability to limit the effects of sanctions has, until now, been aided by relatively high oil prices—prices that tend to increase as Iran threatens conflict in the Persian Gulf region. Iran also has used various innovations to work around some of the growing international restrictions. The United States and its partners are attempting to implement the 2012 sanctions so as not to raise world oil prices any further.

In the 112th Congress, legislation, such as S. 1048, H.R. 1905, and a Senate Banking Committee bill reported out on February 2, 2012, would enhance both the economic sanctions and human rights-related provisions of CISADA and other laws. For a broader analysis of policy on Iran, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman.



Date of Report: February 10, 2012
Number of Pages: 79
Order Number: RS20871
Price: $29.95

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