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Monday, March 11, 2013

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

A priority of Obama Administration policy has been to address the perceived threat posed to a broad range of U.S. interests by Iran, in particular by Iran’s advancing uranium enrichment program. Well before the Iran nuclear issue rose to the fore in 2003, the United States had long seen Iran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East and in Iraq and Afghanistan as efforts to undermine U.S. interests and allies. U.S. officials also accuse Iran of helping Syria’s leadership try to defeat a growing popular opposition movement and of trying to block resolution of the unrest in Bahrain, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.

The Obama Administration has orchestrated broad international economic pressure on Iran to try to compel it to verifiably demonstrate to the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful. Three rounds of multilateral talks with Iran in 2012 yielded no breakthroughs but did explore a potential compromise under which Iran might cease enriching uranium to 20% purity (a level not technically far from weapons grade) in exchange for modest sanctions relief. Subsequent technical talks produced no immediate progress, but resulted in a resumption of talks on February 26-27, 2013. However, the talks produced little evident progress, and Iran’s Supreme Leader has rejected a U.S. offer of direct bilateral talks with Iran—considered key to a breakthrough.

The government of Israel has asserted 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, if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran from taking final steps toward developing a nuclear weapon. The Administration asserts that there is still time—although increasingly limited—for diplomacy before U.S. military action is considered. But, there is a growing realization that the accumulated international sanctions—including an oil purchase embargo by the European Union that went into full effect on July 1, 2012—has not pressured the regime to the point at which it is compelled to compromise.

Many outside experts assert that the popularity of Iran’s regime is in decline, in part because of Iran’s growing international isolation and in part because of its repression, although not to the point where the regime’s grip on power is threatened. However, the domestic opposition remains relatively weak and outwardly inactive. The March 2, 2012, parliamentary elections increased the political dominance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, and it is likely that the significant candidates in the next presidential election, to be held on June 14, 2013, will be Khamene’i loyalists. However, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is constitutionally barred from running again, continues to challenge supporters of Khamene’i. The regime is trying to ensure that the 2013 election does not produce the mass public unrest that occurred in the aftermath of that election in 2009 over perceptions of election fraud.

The 112
th Congress supported additional economic sanctions against Iran, most recently with enactment of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (H.R. 1905, P.L. 112-158), and a title of the FY2013 defense authorization bill (H.R. 4310, P.L. 112-239). These laws expand sanctions against companies that conduct energy, industrial, and financial and precious metals transactions with Iran. For further information, see CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman; and CRS Report R40094, Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance with International Obligations, by Paul K. Kerr. .

Date of Report: February 28, 2013
Number of Pages: 84
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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