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Monday, December 30, 2013

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses - RL32048

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. Three rounds of multilateral talks with Iran in subsequent to the accession of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran achieved a November 24, 2013 interim agreement (“Joint Plan of Action”) that halts the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest and temporary sanctions relief. The agreement is to remain in force for six months, during which time a permanent resolution of the Iran nuclear issue is to be negotiated. 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 has also 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 not only could the nuclear issue be settled but that the long era of U.S.-Iran hostility could be ended. The interim nuclear agreement has apparently also eased tensions between Iran and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf region. However, like the United States, the Gulf states, Israel, and other regional states appear to concerned that Iran’s regional ambitions are unchanged. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly expressed opposition to the Joint Plan of Action as failing to dismantle Iran’s uranium enrichment and other infrastructure, and as paving the way for a broad unraveling of international sanctions on Iran. Some experts assert that the nuclear deal could give Iran additional political and economic resources to support pro-Iranian movements and regimes, such as the embattled government of Bashar Al Assad of Syria.

President Obama has maintained—both before and after the interim agreement was signed—that the option of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains open. However, further U.S.—or Israeli—discussion of military options against Iran is unlikely unless Iran fails to implement the interim deal or negotiate the longer term settlement of the nuclear issue. In line with a provision of the interim agreement that no new sanctions be imposed on Iran during the six month agreement period, the Administration is requesting that Congress postpone further consideration of an expanded Iran sanctions bill, H.R. 850, which passed the House on July 31, 2013, or similar legislation.

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. For further information, see CRS Report RS20871,
Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman; and CRS Report R43333, Interim Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program, by Kenneth Katzman and Paul K. Kerr.

Date of Report: December 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 77
Order Number: RL32048
Price: $29.95

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