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Thursday, May 16, 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 nuclear program. Well before the nuclear issue rose to the forefront of U.S. concerns about Iran, the United States had 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 actively helping Syria’s leadership try to defeat the armed rebellion there.

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 high-level talks took place on February 26-27, 2013 and April 5-6, 2013, both in Almaty, Kazakhstan. No breakthroughs were achieved in Almaty. Iran’s Supreme Leader has not taken up U.S. offers to engage in the direct bilateral talks that many experts believe are 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 says the option of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains open, but he has asserted that there is still time— although increasingly limited—for diplomacy. He reiterated this position during his March 2013 visit to Israel.

Some 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 most of the major candidates in the presidential election, to be held on June 14, 2013, will be Khamene’i loyalists. However, there are severe tensions in the run-up to the election as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks to ensure that his close aide and protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, is permitted to run. Mashai is disliked by Khamene’i’s loyalists but his platform of easing social restrictions has attracted popular support. The regime is likely to allow Mashai or other moderate figures run in order to reduce these tensions and to avoid public unrest and voter disaffection.

The 112
th Congress supported additional economic sanctions against Iran, most recently with enactment 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 Iran sanctions bills, such as H.R. 850, 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: May 3, 2013
Number of Pages: 80
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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