Reports : Iran, Iraq, Syria…


Syria: Issues for the 112th Congress and Background on U.S. Sanctions

This report analyzes bilateral issues between the United States and Syria. Unrest in Syria and the Asad government’s violent response are adding new complexity to the troubled U.S.-Syrian relationship. The Obama Administration’s policy of limited engagement with Syria to address areas of longstanding concern has been met with criticism from some, including some Members of Congress. Critics believe that the Administration should apply further pressure to the Syrian government and consider implementing harsher economic sanctions against it. The use of violence against Syrian protestors has been accompanied by calls for new U.S. sanctions but also some expression of concern by experts that political unrest in Syria could evolve into a broader civil conflict that in turn could destabilize Syria’s neighbors. Despite its weak military and lackluster economy, Syria has leveraged its geographic location and its foreign policy alignment to remain relevant in Middle Eastern politics. At times, Syria has participated in substantive negotiations with Israel, from whom it seeks the return of the occupied Golan Heights. However, Syria also acts at times as a “spoiler” by hosting U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and facilitating the rearmament of Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Syria’s long-standing relationship with Iran is of great concern to U.S. strategists, insofar as Syria serves as a conduit for Iranian power projection in the broader Middle East. As the Syrian government has grown more estranged from the United States over the last ten years, Syrian-Iranian relations have improved, and some analysts have called on U.S. policymakers and their regional allies to offer incentives to Syrian leaders in order to realign them away from Iran. These dynamics are complicated by long-standing U.S. concerns about Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction technology, and regional policy in Lebanon and Iraq. A variety of U.S. legislative provisions and executive directives prohibit direct foreign assistance funding to Syria and restrict bilateral trade relations, largely because of the U.S. State Department’s designation of Syria as a sponsor of international terrorism. On December 12, 2003, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act, H.R. 1828, as P.L. 108-175, which imposed additional economic sanctions against Syria. Syrian individuals and government officials are subject to targeted financial sanctions pursuant to seven executive orders relating to terrorism, proliferation, and regional security. In recent years, the Administration has designated several Syrian entities as weapons proliferators and sanctioned several Russian companies for alleged weapons of mass destruction or advanced weapons sales to Syria. For two years, the Obama Administration attempted to promote some U.S. engagement with Syria, and several Congressional delegations visited Syria during the 111th Congress. However, prior to the outbreak of the recent unrest, the Administration appeared to be shifting tactically toward applying more pressure on the Syrian government to play a more constructive role in stabilizing Lebanon and advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Asad government’s use of force to contain growing protests across Syria may reshape congressional attitudes toward Syria, which have varied. Some in Congress may choose to impose new sanctions against the Asad regime. Other lawmakers may seek to continue U.S. engagement as a means of mitigating the unpredictable and potentially negative consequences of the unrest. Many observers believe that the violence could preclude a return to engagement and the offering of incentives to address other issues of U.S. concern, absent a fundamental shift in the Syrian government’s actions toward its own citizens.

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Iran Sanctions

There appears to be a growing international consensus to adopt progressively strict economic sanctions against Iran to try to compel it to verifiably confine its nuclear program to purely peaceful uses. In January 2011, Secretary of State Clinton claimed that sanctions have accomplished a core objective of slowing Iran’s nuclear program. However, nuclear talks in December 2010 and in January 2011 made virtually no progress. There has been little evidence since that Iran’s leaders feel sufficiently pressured by sanctions to offer major concessions to revive talks or obtain a nuclear deal. Because so many major economic powers have imposed sanctions on Iran, the sanctions are, by all accounts, having a growing effect on Iran’s economy. The sanctions are reinforcing the effects of Iran’s economic mismanagement and key bottlenecks. Among other indicators, there have been a stream of announcements by major international firms since early 2010 that they are exiting the Iranian market. Iran’s oil production has fallen slightly to about 3.9 million barrels per day, from over 4.1 million barrels per day several years ago, although Iran now has small natural gas exports that it did not have before Iran opened its fields to foreign investment in 1996. The United States and its allies appear to agree that sanctions should continue to target Iran’s energy sector and should try to isolate Iran from the international financial system. The energy sector provides about 80% of government revenues. Iran’s large trading community depends on financing to buy goods from the West and sell them inside Iran. Using the authorities of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted June 9, 2010, measures adopted since mid-2010 by the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and several other countries target those sectors. These national measures complement the numerous U.S. laws and regulations that have long sought to try to pressure Iran. Possibly in an effort to accomplish the separate objective of promoting the cause of the domestic opposition in Iran, the Obama Administration and Congress are increasingly emphasizing measures that would sanction Iranian officials who are human rights abusers and facilitate the democracy movement’s access to information. U.S. efforts to curb international energy investment in Iran’s energy sector began in 1996 with the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), a U.S. law that mandates U.S. penalties against foreign companies that conduct certain business with Iran’s energy sector. ISA represented a U.S. effort to persuade foreign firms to choose between the Iranian market and the much larger U.S. and other developed markets. In the 111th Congress, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA, P.L. 111-195) expanded ISA significantly to try to restrict Iran’s ability to make or import gasoline, for which Iran depends heavily on imports. Sales to Iran of gasoline have fallen dramatically since CISADA was enacted. CISADA also adds a broad range of other measures further restricting the already limited amount of U.S. trade with Iran and restricting some high technology trade with countries that allow WMD-useful technology to reach Iran. Legislation to enhance the effects of CISADA has been introduced in the 112th Congress, and additional legislative proposals are likely. For a broader analysis of policy on Iran, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman.

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Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Iraq’s political system is increasingly characterized by peaceful competition and formation of cross-sectarian alliances, although ethnic and sectarian infighting continues, sometimes involving the questionable use of key levers of power and legal institutions. This infighting–and the belief that holding political power may mean the difference between life and death for the various political communities–significantly delayed agreement on a new government that was to be selected following the March 7, 2010, national elections for the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament). With U.S. diplomatic intervention, on November 10, 2010, major ethnic and sectarian factions agreed on a framework for a new government, breaking the long deadlock. Their agreement, under which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki serves a second term, was implemented in the formation of a broad-based cabinet on December 21, 2010. The participation of all major factions in the new government was considered stabilizing politically and created some political momentum to act on key outstanding legislation crucial to attracting foreign investment, such as national hydrocarbon laws. The new government took action on some long-stalled initiatives, including year-long tensions over Kurdish exports of oil. However, the lack of a broader and sustained focus on governance, or on improving key services, such as electricity, created popular frustration that manifested as protests since February 2011. The protests were possibly inspired by the wave of unrest that has broken out in many other Middle Eastern countries but were not centered on overthrowing the regime or wholesale political change. Some force was used to suppress them, but the major effect was to renew tensions among and within major factions rather than to inspire new attempts to improve government performance. Political schisms, aggravated by the political unrest, could still cause serious instability. Sunni Arab fears that Maliki and his Shiite allies seek to monopolize power remain, as do the concerns of the Kurds that Maliki will not honor pledges to resolve Kurd-Arab territorial and financial disputes. There are significant tensions between Sunni Arabs and the Kurds over territory and governance in parts of northern Iraq, particularly Nineveh Province. Some Iraqi communities, including Christians, are not necessarily at odds with the government but they have been targeted by insurgent attacks in late 2010 and early 2011. Still, the overall human rights situation in Iraq appears to remain at levels vastly improved from those at the height of sectarian conflict (2006-2008). These splits cloud the approaching completion of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, in keeping with a 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. U.S. forces have dropped to 47,000, from a 2008 high of 170,000, with the formal end of the U.S. combat mission on August 31, 2010. Continuing high profile attacks, although sporadic and relatively infrequent, have caused some experts to question whether security will deteriorate to the point where Iraq becomes a “failed state” after 2011, unless Iraq requests the continued presence of U.S. forces after that time. Some question the ability of the U.S. State Department to secure its facilities and personnel and to carry out its mission on its own, without direct U.S. military participation. There are also continuing concerns over Iranian influence over Iraq as U.S. forces depart. Iran’s main protégé in Iraq, Moqtada Al Sadr, has made several visits into Iraq since the beginning of 2011, following three years of exile for religious studies in Iran, and he might be using the failures of the Maliki government as a way to bolster his faction’s position.

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