Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options

Summary Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the United States and Iran have been at odds, although to varying degrees of intensity. During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. officials identified Iran’s support for militant Middle East groups as the primary threat posed by Iran to U.S. interests and allies. Iran’s nuclear program took precedence in U.S. policy after 2002 as the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon increased. In 2010, the Obama Administration orchestrated broad international economic pressure on Iran to persuade it to agree to strict limits on the program. The pressure contributed to the June 2013 election of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran and the negotiation of a nuclear agreement—the ﷿Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action﷿ (JCPOA)—which exchanged sanctions relief for limits on Iran﷿s nuclear program. The JCPOA reduced the potential threat from Iran﷿s nuclear program, but did not contain strict or binding limits on Iran﷿s ballistic missile program; its regional influence; its conventional military programs; or its human rights abuses.

The Trump Administration cited these deficiencies of the JCPOA in its May 8, 2018, announcement that the United States would exit the JCPOA and reimpose all U.S. secondary sanctions by November 4, 2018. The stated intent of Trump Administration policy is to apply maximum economic pressure on Iran to compel it to change its behavior on the various issues of concern to the United States, including its support for regional armed factions. The U.S. exit from the JCPOA has raised concerns about the potential for the United States and Iran to come into direct armed conflict in the region, and the Administration asserts that it might react militarily to provocative actions by Iran.

Because of the many facets and issues involved in U.S. policy, on August 16, 2018, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced formation of an ﷿Iran Action Group﷿ to coordinate all aspects of State Department activity on Iran. In September 2018, the Iran Action Group issued a report, entitled Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities that accused Iran of a long litany of behaviors, including human rights abuses that threaten U.S. interests. Some experts assert that the threat posed by Iran stems from the nature and ideology of Iran﷿s regime, and that the underlying, if unstated, goal of Trump Administration policy is to bring about regime collapse. A regime change strategy presumably would take advantage of divisions and fissures within Iran, as well as evident popular unrest. Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who seeks to improve Iran﷿s relations with the West, including the United States, won successive presidential elections in 2013 and 2017, and reformist and moderate candidates won overwhelmingly in concurrent municipal council elections in all the major cities.

But hardliners continue to control the state institutions that maintain internal security in large part through suppression. In part as a response to repression as well as economic conditions, unrest erupts periodically, most recently during December 2017-January 2018, and sporadically since then. President Trump has indicated a willingness to meet with Iranian leaders, but his key foreign policy subordinates have set strict conditions for any broader improvement in relations—conditions the regime is highly unlikely to meet. Administration officials have been increasingly highlighting Iran﷿s human rights abuses and systemic corruption in an apparent attempt to build international support for sanctions and possibly also to weaken support for the regime within Iran.