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Monday, September 23, 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 by Iran to a broad range of U.S. interests. Well before Iran’s nuclear issue rose to the forefront of U.S. concerns about Iran in 2003, the United States had seen Iran’s support for militant groups—most of them Shiite Muslim—in the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan as efforts to undermine U.S. interests and allies. U.S. officials also assert that Iran is providing arms and advice to help Syria’s leadership try to defeat armed rebels there. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s closest regional ally, is providing fighters to help the Syrian regime, and it also has allegedly been responsible for a number of acts of terrorism against Israeli citizens and interests over the past two years.

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 for purely peaceful purposes. Five rounds of multilateral talks with Iran in 2012 and 2013 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. 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. International sanctions have harmed Iran’s economy, but perhaps not to the point at which Iranian leaders feel compelled to capitulate on the issue. Yet, the June 14, 2013, first round election victory of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, appears to reflect popular Iranian sentiment for a negotiated nuclear settlement that produces an easing of international sanctions.

The government of Israel asserts 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 says the option of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains open, but he has asserted that there is time—although an increasingly limited amount of time—for diplomacy. The election of Rouhani is likely to forestall, at least in the short term, further U.S. discussion of military options against Iran.

The victory of Rouhani could enhance the popularity of Iran’s regime, particularly if Rouhani implements campaign pledges to ease repression and social restrictions. His unexpected election win—a result of a large turnout of reform-minded voters such as those who protested the 2009 election results—appeared to counter the views of many experts who assessed the domestic reform movement as cowed by regime suppression and inactive. The Rouhani victory was unexpected because the favored candidates in the contest were Khamene’i loyalists. His appointment of a relatively moderate cabinet composed of officials from past reformists and pragmatic governments appears to indicate his intent to implement his campaign pledges and ease tensions with the international community, although not necessarily to change course on Syria.

The 112th Congress enacted additional economic sanctions against Iran, including a FY2013 defense authorization act (P.L. 112-239) that expanded sanctions against companies that conduct energy, industrial, and financial and precious metals transactions with Iran. A bills that would expand sanctions further, H.R. 850, was passed by the House on July 31, 2013. 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: September 3, 2013
Number of Pages: 79
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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