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Friday, April 12, 2013

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

A priority of Obama Administration policy has been to reduce 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 forefront of U.S. concerns in 2003, the United States had long seen Iran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East, 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 the armed rebellion there 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. Further discussions on that potential agreement took place on February 26-27, 2013, and March 18, 2013, with high level talks to re-convene on April 5-6. However, no breakthrough is expected in advance of Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections. Iran’s Supreme Leader has, to date, refused to engage in direct bilateral talks with the United States that many experts believe would be required to produce a breakthrough. And, there is an emerging consensus that international sanctions— although severely harming Iran’s economy—have not pressured the regime to the point at which it is compelled to compromise.

The government of Israel has asserted that it might take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Iran’s program advances to the point where Iran could produce a nuclear weapon relatively quickly. President Obama Administration asserts that there is still time— although increasingly limited—for diplomacy before U.S. military action is considered; he reiterated that stance during his March 2013 official visit to Israel.

Many 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. 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 favorite in the presidential election, to be held on June 14, 2013, will be a Khamene’i loyalist. Still, the regime is likely to allow some moderate reform-minded figures to run in order to try to avoid the mass public unrest that occurred in the aftermath of the presidential election in 2009.

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. Additional bills have been introduced in the 113th Congress. 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: April 4, 2013
Number of Pages: 83
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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