Iran, Gulf Security, and U.S. Policy – CRS – Dec 2015

Iran, Gulf Security, and U.S. Policy
Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
December 29, 2015


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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 Persian 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 often differed over how to try to defeat the group and still disagree on many other issues. The finalization on July 14, 2015, of a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) between Iran and six negotiating powers could enhance Iran’s ability to counter the United States and its allies in the region, but could also pave the way for cooperation to resolve regional conflicts.

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. The perception of threat from Iran increased in 2002 with confirmation that Iran was adding aspects to its nuclear program that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon. The United States orchestrated broad international economic pressure on Iran to try to ensure that the program would be verifiably confined to purely peaceful purposes. The international pressure contributed to the June 2013 election of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran He subsequently negotiated the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement, the April 2, 2015, framework for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, and the JCPOA. The JCPOA, which entered into force on October 18, 2015, stipulates steps to give the international community confidence that it would take Iran at least a year to produce a nuclear weapon, were Iran to try to do so, in exchange for relief from most of the international sanctions imposed on Iran since 2010.

The JCPOA has the potential to improve U.S.-Iran relations, but relations with Iran on regional issues have worsened in some respects since the agreement was finalized. In October and November 2015, Iran tested ballistic missiles that appear to constitute violations of applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions. Iran has also increased its involvement in the Syria conflict in support of President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, whose brutal tactics against domestic armed opponents is, according to U.S. officials, fueling support for the Islamic State organization with brutal tactics. Iran’s actions have strengthened the assertions of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) and other U.S. allies such as Israel that the JCPOA will furnish Iran with additional political and financial resources to expand its regional influence. The United States and the GCC states have a long-standing and extensive security relationship that enables the United States to maintain about 35,000 military personnel at facilities throughout the Gulf. To try to reassure the GCC that Iran’s regional influence can and will be contained, U.S. officials have held several high level meetings with GCC leaders to increase security cooperation, including discussion of additional arms sales. The United States is helping a GCC-led Arab coalition combat an Iran-backed rebel Houthi movement in Yemen, and the United States permits GCC countries to supply U.S.-made weaponry to factions fighting the Iran and Russia-supported regime of Bashar Al Assad of Syria.

Domestically, Rouhani and the JCPOA appear to have broad support, but many Iranians say they also want greater easing of media and social restrictions. Iran’s judiciary remains in the hands of hardliners who continue to prosecute dissenters and hold several U.S.-Iran dual nationals on various charges—including U.S.-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian. Another dual national was arrested after the JCPOA was finalized. The United States has supported programs to promote civil society in Iran, but successive U.S. administrations have stopped short of adopting policies that specifically seek to overthrow Iran’s regime. See also CRS Report R43333, Iran Nuclear Agreement, by Kenneth Katzman and Paul K. Kerr; CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman; and CRS Report R44017, Iran’s Foreign Policy, by Kenneth Katzman.