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CRS: Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses

Author: Kenneth Katzman
March 23, 2012

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This Congressional Research Service report looks at foreign policy and internal politics in Iran, drawing conclusions as to what they entail for future U.S.-Iranian and regional policy.

The issue of Iran and its nuclear program has emerged as a top priority for the Obama Administration. The sense of impending crisis is generated by growing suspicions in the international community that Iran's nuclear program is not for purely peaceful purposes, and the determination of the government of Israel, in particular, that it might take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities if its progress is not soon halted. The United States also sees a threat to U.S. interests posed by Iran's support for militant groups in the Middle East and in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. officials accuse Iran of helping Syria's leadership try to defeat a growing popular opposition movement and of taking advantage of Shiite majority unrest against the Sunni-led, pro-U.S. government of Bahrain. Tensions have been particularly elevated since Iran's late-December 2011 threat to try to choke off much of the world's oil supplies by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz—a reaction to the imposition of significant sanctions against Iran's vital exports of oil.

The heightened tensions follow three years in which the Obama Administration has assembled a broad international coalition to pressure Iran through economic sanctions while also offering sustained engagement with Iran if it verifiably assures the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful. None of the pressure has, to date, altered Iran's pursuit of its nuclear program: Iran attended December 2010 and January 2011 talks with the six powers negotiating with Iran, but no progress was reported at any of these meetings. In early 2012, Iran began uranium enrichment at a deep underground facility near Qom to a level of 20% enrichment. However, since the beginning of 2012, as significant multilateral sanctions have been added on Iran's oil exports—including an oil purchase embargo by the European Union to go into full effect by July 1, 2012—there are growing indications that the regime feels economic pressure. Iran's leaders have responded not only with threats to commerce in the Strait of Hormuz, but an acceptance of new nuclear talks without preconditions. The Administration uses indicators such as Iran's economic deterioration and its willingness to engage in new talks as evidence that policy is starting to work and should be given more time before any consideration of U.S. or other country military options.

The Administration also perceives that the legitimacy and popularity of Iran's regime is in decline, although not to the point where the regime's grip on power is threatened. The regime has sought to use the international pressure to rally the public to its side, playing on nationalist entiment to encourage high turnout in the March 2, 2012, parliamentary elections. The boycott of the poll by reformist groups rendered the election a contest between factions supporting either President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i. Khamene'i supporters were elected overwhelmingly, helping the Supreme Leader solidify his control over day-to-day governance. Over the past two years, the United States has increased public criticism of Iran's human rights record, an effort broadly supported in the international community. Some in the 112th Congress, aside from supporting additional economic sanctions against Iran, believe the United States should provide additional political support to the democracy movement in Iran, despite the relative quiescence of the opposition since early 2010. The Administration argues that it has supported the opposition through civil society and other programs, and by using recent authorities to sanction Iranian officials who suppress human rights in Iran and help Syria repress human rights.

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