Report to Congress on Iran and U.S. Policy

September 12, 2023 7:29 AM

The following is the Sept. 8, 2023, Congressional Research Service report, Iran: Background and U.S. Policy.

From the report

Congress has played a key role in shaping U.S. policy toward Iran, authorizing extensive U.S. sanctions, seeking to influence diplomatic engagement with Iran, funding and authorizing support to U.S. partners facing Iranian threats, and enacting legislation that allows Congress to review agreements related to Iran’s nuclear program, a key concern for U.S. policymakers. The Iranian government’s support for armed proxies and terrorist groups, its human rights violations, and its increasingly close relationships with Russia and China also pose challenges for the United States. Selected issues on which Congress has engaged include:

Iran’s Nuclear Program. U.S. policymakers have for decades signaled concern that Tehran might seek to develop nuclear weapons, though Iranian leaders deny such ambitions. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) imposed restraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from most U.S. and U.N. Security Council economic sanctions. In 2018, the Trump Administration ceased U.S. participation in the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions that the Obama Administration had lifted. Since the reimposition of U.S. sanctions, Iran has decreased its compliance with the nuclear commitments of the JCPOA. Iran has reportedly slowed some nuclear activities in the context of reported U.S.-Iran diplomatic engagement in 2023.

U.S.-Iran Diplomatic Engagement. The Biden Administration sought to revive the JCPOA through indirect negotiations, but those stalled in fall 2022. In August 2023, the United States and Iran reportedly reached an informal understanding that includes mutual prisoner releases and the unfreezing of some Iranian assets abroad. Some in Congress have questioned whether the Administration has fulfilled its commitments under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA, P.L. 114-17), which mandates congressional review of agreements related to Iran’s nuclear program and provides for consideration of legislation to block their implementation.

Nationwide Protests. The September 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by Iran’s Morality Police for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab (or head covering) law and died after reportedly having been beaten in custody, sparked nationwide unrest. The regime has cracked down violently against protesters, killing hundreds, and restricted internet use. The protests appear to have subsided in 2023 but could resurge as the grievances underlying them remain unresolved. The Biden Administration has sanctioned a number of Iranian officials in response to the crackdown and issued a general license aimed at expanding secure internet access for Iranians.

Sanctions. Since 1979, successive U.S. Administrations have imposed economic sanctions in an effort to change various aspects of Iran’s behavior, often at the direction of Congress. U.S. sanctions include measures targeting Iran’s energy sector, its arms and weapons-related technology transfers, its financial sector, and various non-oil industries and sectors. Sanctions appear to have had a mixed impact on Iranian behavior.

Iran’s Military. U.S. officials have expressed concern with the activities of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which provides arms, training, and support to a network of regional proxies and armed groups. In addition to IRGC support to U.S. adversaries in the Middle East, Iran maintains what U.S. officials describe as “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the region” and has developed a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones).

Iran’s Foreign Policy. Iran’s government seeks, among other goals, to erode U.S. influence in the Middle East while projecting power in neighboring states. Iran-backed militia forces in Iraq and Syria have carried out rocket, drone, and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against U.S. and allied forces. Iran has provided weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah, which the group has used in armed conflicts with Israel, and to Houthi militants in Yemen, enabling the Houthis to target Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran also has taken steps to strengthen its economic and military ties with China and Russia—for example, exporting UAVs to bolster Russian military operations in Ukraine.

The U.S. government has used various policy tools, including comprehensive sanctions, limited military action, and diplomatic engagement with leaders in Iran and other countries to counter what the U.S. officials describe as Iranian threats to U.S. interests. As of 2023, the Iranian government faces challenges at home but retains considerable influence in the Middle East region, is developing new ties to Russia and China (including via its prospective BRICS membership), and remains able to contest U.S. interests in the region and beyond. In this context, Members of Congress may consider questions related to U.S. and Iranian policy goals, the stability of Iran’s government, and efforts to counter Iran’s regional influence and deter its nuclear development activities.

Download the document here.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox