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Friday, November 22, 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 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. The five rounds of multilateral talks with Iran in 2012 and 2013—prior to the June 14, 2013, election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani as president—explored a potential compromise under which Iran might cease producing medium enriched uranium (20% Uranium-235, not technically far from weapons grade) in exchange for modest sanctions relief. International sanctions have harmed Iran’s economy, and Rouhani’s election appeared to reflect popular Iranian sentiment for a negotiated nuclear settlement that produces an easing of international sanctions.

Rouhani’s election substantially improved prospects 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 hold another round of talks on the nuclear issue on October 15-16, 2013. Those talks were productive, by all accounts, and resulted in a decision to meet again November 7-8, 2013. Those meetings were extended one day and, by all accounts, came close to agreement on a draft outlining an interim limitation of Iran’s nuclear program. There is optimism that an interim agreement will be finalized during the next round of talks on November 20, 2013.

President Obama has maintained—both before and after the Rouhani election—that the option of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains open. However, the apparent progress in negotiations is likely to forestall further U.S. discussion of military options against Iran. The Administration is also requesting the Senate postpone moving ahead with a Senate version of an expanded Iran sanctions bill, H.R. 850, which passed the House on July 31, 2013. That bill would enable Iran’s major oil customers to avoid sanctions if they cut their purchases of Iranian oil to minimal levels. 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, Rouhani’s government released nearly 80 political prisoners. 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: November 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 79
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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