Friday, October 18, 2013
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 regional militant groups, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, as efforts to undermine U.S. interests and allies. To implement U.S. policy, 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 producing medium-enriched uranium (20% Uranium-235—a level not technically far from weapons grade) in exchange for modest sanctions relief. International sanctions have harmed Iran’s economy, and the June 14, 2013, first round election victory of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, appeared to reflect popular Iranian sentiment for a negotiated nuclear settlement that produces an easing of international sanctions. 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.
Rouhani’s election has improved the prospect for a nuclear issue settlement as well as an end to the 34 years of U.S.-Iran estrangement. On September 27, 2013, President Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone—the first leadership level contacts since the 1979 Islamic revolution—as Rouhani departed a week-long visit to the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. In their speeches to the Assembly, both President Obama and Rouhani indicated that the nuclear issue could be settled—perhaps within six months—and that the long era of U.S.-Iran hostility could be ended. The week also included the first foreign ministerial meeting between the two countries, and a decision to resume formal political talks on the nuclear issue on October 15-16, 2013.
President Obama has consistently maintained, including after his phone conversation with Rouhani, that the option of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains open. However, Rouhani’s overtures are likely to forestall, at least in the short term, further U.S. discussion of military options against Iran. The government of Israel expresses skepticism of Rouhani’s intentions and continues to assert that it might take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Iran appears on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon.
Rouhani’s presidency has the potential to increase the domestic popularity of Iran’s regime if he 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. In September 2013, his government released nearly 80 political prisoners.
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 bill 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: October 1, 2013
Number of Pages: 80
Order Number: RL32048
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Posted by Penny Hill Press, Inc. at Friday, October 18, 2013