Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, a priority of U.S. policy has been to reduce the perceived threat posed by Iran to a broad range of U.S. interests, including the security of the Arabian Gulf region. In 2014, a common adversary emerged in the form of the Islamic State organization, reducing gaps in U.S. and Iranian regional interests, although the two countries have somewhat differing approaches over how to try to defeat the group.
During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. officials identified Iran’s support for militant Middle East groups as a significant threat to U.S. interests and allies. A perceived potential threat from Iran’s nuclear program emerged in 2002, and the United States has orchestrated broad international economic pressure on Iran to try to ensure that the program is verifiably confined to purely peaceful purposes. The international pressure might have contributed to the June 2013 election as president of Iran of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned as an advocate of ending Iran’s international isolation. Subsequent multilateral talks with Iran produced an interim agreement (“Joint Plan of Action,” JPA) that halted the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief. After more than a year of further talks, on April 2, 2015, the United States and its partners announced a political outline of a comprehensive nuclear agreement, with intent to finalize details by June 30, 2015. The framework stipulates technical steps that would give the international community confidence that it would take Iran at least one year to produce a nuclear weapon, were Iran to try to do so. In exchange, Iran is to receive relief from most of the U.S., multinational, and U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran since 2010.
A final nuclear agreement could significantly improve U.S.-Iran relations, but the framework agreement comes in the context of U.S. and allied concerns about Iranian actions in the region. The Arabian Gulf states express concern that Iran has made substantial gains in recent years, for example in supporting the rebel Houthi movement in Yemen and in organizing Shiite forces to defend the embattled government of Bashar Al Assad of Syria. The war against the Islamic State organization has also given Iran additional influence over the government of Iraq as well as common interests with the United States in Iraq. On Syria, Iran supports Assad, whereas the United States asserts his departure is key to a political solution. The January 2015 fall of the government of Yemen under pressure from the Houthis has aggravated Saudi-Iranian tensions as Saudi Arabia has undertaken military action against the Houthis there. U.S. allies, particularly Israel and the Gulf states, express concern that a lifting of sanctions will furnish Iran with additional resources with which to expand its influence further. The Gulf states express fears that a nuclear deal could cause the United States to tilt toward Iran or forfeit its role as the final guarantor of Gulf security.
Domestically, Rouhani’s unexpected election win and latitude from Iran’s Supreme Leader to negotiate a nuclear deal demonstrates that Iran’s population supports reducing Iran’s isolation. Rouhani has sought to satisfy this sentiment not only through the nuclear negotiations but also by orchestrating the release of some political prisoners and easing some media restrictions. But, Iran’s judiciary remains in the hands of hardliners who continue to restrict social freedoms and prosecute regime critics and dissenters. For further information, see CRS Report R43333, Iran: Efforts to Achieve a Nuclear Accord, by Kenneth Katzman, Paul K. Kerr, and Michael John Garcia; CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman; and CRS Report R44017, Iran’s Foreign Policy, by Kenneth Katzman.
• Political History
• Regime Structure, Stability, and Opposition
• Human Rights Practices
• The Strategic Challenge Posed by Iran
• Conventional and “Asymmetric Warfare” Capability
• U.S. Policy Responses and Further Options