Report to Congress on Iran and U.S. Policy

February 2, 2024 9:19 AM

The following is the Jan. 26, 2024, Congressional Research Service report, Iran: Background and U.S. Policy.

From the report

Congress has played a major 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 October 2023 attack on Israel led by the Palestinian group Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization which Iran has long supported, and ongoing attacks against U.S. forces and other targets in the region by other Iran-backed groups, have attracted significant congressional attention. U.S. and Israeli officials have stated that they do not have evidence of the Iranian government’s direct involvement in the October 7 attack, but that they hold Iran broadly complicit because of its support for Hamas. The Iranian government’s human rights violations and close relationships with Russia and China also pose challenges for the United States. Selected issues on which Congress has engaged include:

Iran’s Foreign Policy and Support for Terrorist Groups. Iran’s government seeks, among other goals, to erode U.S. influence in the Middle East while projecting power in neighboring states by backing a range of regional armed groups, including some U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, Iran-backed groups throughout the Middle East (which sometimes refer to themselves as the “axis of resistance”) have conducted attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and international shipping in the Red Sea, drawing retaliatory U.S. military action. Observers debate the nature of Tehran’s relationships with and influence over these groups. While neither the United States nor Iran appears to seek a direct military confrontation, the evolving threat perceptions, political calculations, and strategic goals of multiple actors in a dynamic combat environment could increase the risk of such a conflict.

Prisoner Exchange and Fund Transfer. In September 2023, the United States and Iran concluded a prisoner exchange and the United States facilitated the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar. Some in Congress have criticized the move, and the Biden Administration has reportedly agreed to prevent Iran’s use of the funds since October 2023.

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 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 barred some international inspectors and reportedly increased its nuclear activities in the context of heightened regional tensions in late 2023. Biden Administration attempts to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) via indirect negotiations stalled in fall 2022.

Nationwide Protests. The September 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab (or head covering) law and died in custody, sparked nationwide unrest. The regime cracked down violently against protesters, killing hundreds, and restricted internet use. The protests appear to have subsided but the grievances underlying them remain unresolved.

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.

Iran’s Military and Foreign Policy. In addition to its support for allied groups throughout 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). These activities give Iran considerable regional influence, which the Iranian government has sought to reinforce by taking steps to strengthen its economic and military ties with China and Russia—for example, by exporting UAVs to bolster Russian military operations in Ukraine and selling oil to China.

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 2024, the Iranian government faces some 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.

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