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

Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and
July 29, 2021
Kenneth Katzman
U.S.-Iran relations have been mostly adversarial since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran,
Specialist in Middle
occasionally flaring into direct conflict while at other times witnessing negotiations or tacit
Eastern Affairs
cooperation on selected issues. U.S. officials have consistently identified the regime’s support for

militant Middle East groups as a significant threat to U.S. interests and allies, and limiting the
expansion of Iran’s nuclear program has been a key U.S. policy goal for nearly two decades.

The Obama Administration engaged Iran directly and obtained a July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) that exchanged sanctions relief for limits on Iran’s nuclear program. The accord did
not contain binding curbs on Iran’s missile program or its regional interventions, or any requirements that the Iranian
government improve its human rights practices. The Trump Administration criticized the JCPOA’s perceived shortcomings
and, returning to prior policies of seeking to weaken Iran strategically, on May 8, 2018, it ceased implementing U.S.
commitments under the JCPOA and reimposed all U.S. sanctions. The stated intent of the Trump Administration’s
“maximum pressure” policy on Iran was to compel it change its behavior, including negotiating a new nuclear agreement that
encompassed the broad range of U.S. concerns. Iran responded by exceeding nuclear limits set by the JCPOA and by
attacking Saudi Arabia as well as commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, and supporting attacks by its allies in Iraq and
Yemen on U.S., Saudi, and other targets in the region.
The Biden Administration has again shifted U.S, policy toward Iran, moving closer to that pursued during the Obama
Administration. The Biden Administration has engaged in talks with Iran to restore full implementation of the JCPOA by
both Iran and the United States, including offering the lifting of those U.S. sanctions that are “inconsistent with the JCPOA.”
Yet, the Administration has dealt with repeated Iranian challenges in the form of enriching uranium to higher levels of purity
and attacks on U.S. forces in both Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias. On at least two occasions, the Administration has
conducted air strikes on these militias in response to attacks on U.S forces and installations. The Administration has
continued to enforce all U.S. sanctions on Iran throughout the talks with Iran.
There Biden Administration also has sought to navigate changes in Iranian policy that are the product of shifting politics
inside Iran. Hassan Rouhani, who sought to improve Iran’s relations with the West, including the United States, won
successive presidential elections in 2013 and 2017. Reformist and moderate candidates won overwhelmingly in concurrent
municipal council elections in all the major cities. However, the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps –Qods
Force commander (IRGC –QF) Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. strike in January 2020 contributed to a significant victory by
hardliners in the February 21, 2020, Majles (parliamentary) elections. And, the June 18, 2021 election in Iran saw the election
of Ibrahim Raisi, a hardline disciple of the Supreme Leader. He is to be inaugurated on August 4. Hardliners also continue to
control the state institutions that maintain internal security largely through suppression and they continue to advocate that
Iran insist on significant U.S. concessions, including the lifting of all U.S. sanctions, including those specified in the JCPOA,
and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
See also CRS Report R43333, Iran Nuclear Agreement and U.S. Exit, by Paul K. Kerr and Kenneth Katzman; CRS Report
RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman; CRS Report R44017, Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies, by Kenneth
Katzman; and CRS Report R45795, U.S.-Iran Conflict and Implications for U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman, Kathleen J.
McInnis, and Clayton Thomas.
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Political History ............................................................................................................................... 1
Regime Structure, Stability, and Opposition ................................................................................... 2
Unelected or Indirectly Elected Institutions: The Supreme Leader, Council of
Guardians, and Expediency Council ...................................................................................... 4
The Supreme Leader ........................................................................................................... 4
Council of Guardians .......................................................................................................... 4
Expediency Council ............................................................................................................ 5
Domestic Security Organs .................................................................................................. 5

Elected Institutions/Recent Elections ........................................................................................ 7
The Presidency .................................................................................................................... 7
The Majles .......................................................................................................................... 7
The Assembly of Experts .................................................................................................... 8
Previous Elections ..................................................................................................................... 8
Disputed 2009 Election ....................................................................................................... 8
Rouhani’s Election Wins and Presidency ........................................................................... 9
Periodic Unrest Challenges the Regime............................................................................ 12
Human Rights Practices ................................................................................................................ 14
U.S.-Iran Relations, U.S. Policy, and Options ............................................................................... 17
Reagan Administration: Iran Placed on Terrorism List ........................................................... 18
George H. W. Bush Administration: “Goodwill Begets Goodwill” ........................................ 18
Clinton Administration: “Dual Containment” ......................................................................... 18
George W. Bush Administration: Iran Part of “Axis of Evil” ................................................. 19
Obama Administration: Pressure, Engagement, and the JCPOA ............................................ 19
Trump Administration: JCPOA Exit and “Maximum Pressure” ............................................. 21
Withdrawal from the JCPOA and Subsequent Pressure Efforts ........................................ 21
Biden Administration: Resumption of Nuclear Talks ............................................................. 23
Policy Elements and Options......................................................................................................... 26
Engagement and Improved Bilateral Relations ....................................................................... 26
Military Action ........................................................................................................................ 26
Economic Sanctions ................................................................................................................ 28
Regime Change ....................................................................................................................... 29
Democracy Promotion and Internet Freedom Efforts ....................................................... 31

Figure 1. Structure of the Iranian Government.............................................................................. 38
Figure 2. Map of Iran .................................................................................................................... 39

Table 1. Major Pro-Regime Institutions and Factions ..................................................................... 5
Table 2. Human Rights Practices: General Categories .................................................................. 16
Table 3. Summary of U.S. Sanctions Against Iran ........................................................................ 28
Table 4. Iran Democracy Promotion Funding ............................................................................... 33
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link to page 43 Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options

Author Information ........................................................................................................................ 39

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

Political History
Iran is a country of nearly 80 million people, located in the heart of the Persian Gulf region. The
United States was an ally of the late Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (“the Shah”), who
ruled from 1941 until his ouster in February 1979. The Shah assumed the throne when Britain and
Russia forced his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi (Reza Shah), from power because of his perceived
alignment with Germany in World War II. Reza Shah had assumed power in 1921 when, as an
officer in Iran’s only military force, the Cossack Brigade (reflecting Russian influence in Iran in
the early 20th century), he launched a coup against the government of the Qajar Dynasty, which
had ruled since 1794. Reza Shah was proclaimed Shah in 1925, founding the Pahlavi dynasty.
The Qajar dynasty had been in decline for many years before Reza Shah’s takeover. That
dynasty’s perceived manipulation by Britain and Russia had been one of the causes of the 1906
constitutionalist movement, which forced the Qajar dynasty to form Iran’s first Majles
(parliament) in August 1906 and promulgate a constitution in December 1906. Prior to the Qajars,
what is now Iran was the center of several Persian empires and dynasties whose reach shrank
steadily over time. After the 16th century, Iranian empires lost control of Bahrain (1521), Baghdad
(1638), the Caucasus (1828), western Afghanistan (1857), Baluchistan (1872), and what is now
Turkmenistan (1894). Iran adopted Shia Islam under the Safavid Dynasty (1500-1722), which
ended a series of Turkic and Mongol conquests.
During the Cold War, the United States viewed the Shah as a bulwark against the expansion of
Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf and a counterweight to pro-Soviet Arab regimes and
movements. Israel maintained a representative office in Iran during the Shah’s time and the Shah
supported a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute. In 1951, under pressure from
nationalists in the Majles (parliament) who gained strength in 1949 elections, he appointed a
popular nationalist parliamentarian, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, as prime minister. Mossadeq was
widely considered left-leaning, and the United States opposed his drive to nationalize the oil
industry, which had been controlled since 1913 by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. His followers
began an uprising in August 1953 when the Shah tried to dismiss him, and the Shah fled. The
Shah was restored to power in a CIA-supported uprising that toppled Mossadeq (“Operation
Ajax”) on August 19, 1953.
The Shah tried to modernize Iran, but in so doing he alienated the Shia clergy and religious
Iranians. He incurred broader resentment by using his SAVAK intelligence service to repress
dissent. The Shah exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1964 because of Khomeini’s active
opposition to what he asserted were the Shah’s anticlerical policies and forfeiture of Iran’s
sovereignty to the United States. Khomeini fled to and taught in Najaf, Iraq, a major Shia
theological center. In 1978, three years after the March 6, 1975, Algiers Accords between the
Shah and Iraq’s Baathist leaders that temporarily ended mutual hostile actions, Iraq expelled
Khomeini to France, where he continued to agitate for revolution that would establish Islamic
government in Iran. Mass demonstrations and guerrilla activity by pro-Khomeini and other anti-
government forces caused the Shah’s government to collapse. Khomeini returned from France on
February 1, 1979, and, on February 11, 1979, he declared an Islamic Republic of Iran.
Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e-faqih (rule by a supreme Islamic jurisprudent, or “Supreme
Leader”) was enshrined in the constitution that was adopted in a public referendum in December
1979 (and amended in 1989). The constitution provided for the post of Supreme Leader of the
Revolution. The regime based itself on strong opposition to Western influence, and relations
between the United States and the Islamic Republic turned openly hostile after the November 4,
1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy and its U.S. diplomats by pro-Khomeini radicals, which began
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Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options

the so-called hostage crisis that ended in January 1981 with the release of the hostages. Ayatollah
Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, and was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i.
The regime faced serious unrest in its first few years, including a June 1981 bombing at the
headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and the prime minister’s office that killed
several senior elected and clerical leaders, including then-Prime Minister Javad Bahonar, elected
President Ali Raja’i, and IRP head and top Khomeini disciple Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein
Beheshti. The regime used these events, along with the hostage crisis with the United States, to
justify purging many of the secular, liberal, and left-wing personalities that had been prominent in
the years just after the revolution. Examples included the regime’s first Prime Minister Mehdi
Bazargan; the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party (Communist); the People’s Mojahedin Organization of
Iran (PMOI, see below); and the first elected president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr. The regime was
under economic and military threat during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, in part due to the
destruction of its oil export capacity and its need to ration goods.
Regime Structure, Stability, and Opposition
The structure of authority in Iran defies easy categorization. Iran’s constitution—adopted in
public referenda in late 1979 and again in 1989—assigns paramount decision making authority
for a “Supreme Leader” (known in Iran as “Leader of the Revolution”). However, choosing the
successor to the Supreme Leader is the duty of an elected body called the Assembly of Experts. A
President and the Majles (unicameral parliament) are directly elected, and since 2013, there have
been elections for municipal councils that select mayors and set local development priorities.
Throughout Iran’s power structure, there are disputes between those who insist on ideological
purity and those considered more pragmatic. Nonetheless, the preponderant political power
wielded by the Shia Islamic clergy and the security apparatus has contributed to the eruption of
repeated periodic unrest from intellectuals, students, labor groups, the poor, women, and members
of Iran’s minority groups. (Iran’s demographics are depicted in a text box below.)
U.S. officials in successive Administrations have accused Iran’s regime of widespread corruption,
both within the government and among its pillars of support. In a speech on Iran on July 22,
2018, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo characterized Iran’s government as “something that
resembles the mafia more than a government.”1 He detailed allegations of the abuse of privileges
enjoyed by Iran’s leaders and supporting elites to enrich themselves and their supporters at the
expense of the public good. The State Department’s “Outlaw Regime” report on Iran, first
released in 2018 and updated in 2020, cite widespread corruption and mismanagement at the
highest levels of the Iranian regime “have produced years of environmental exploitation and
degradation, with tragic results for the Iranian people.”2 Biden Administration officials have
criticized Iran’s human rights abuses while insisting that the issue would not, at least for now,
derail U.S. efforts to reach agreement with Iran on a return to the JCPOA.

1 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. “Supporting Iranian Voices.” Reagan Library, July 22, 2018.
2 Department of State. “Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities, 2020.” September 19, 2020
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Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options

Supreme Leader:
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i
Born in July 1939 to an Azeri (Turkic) family from the northern city of Mashhad. Was jailed by the Shah of
Iran for supporting Ayatol ah Khomeini’s revolution. After the regime took power in 1979, helped organize
Revolutionary Guard and other security organs. Lost some use of right arm in purported assassination
attempt in June 1981. Was elected president in 1981 and served until 1989. Was selected Khomeini’s
successor in June 1989. Upon that selection, Khamene’i’s religious ranking was advanced in official organs to
“Grand Ayatol ah” from the lower-ranking “Hoj at ol-Islam.” He lacks the undisputed authority Khomeini
had, and competes with Grand Ayatol ah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq and other Shia clerics for the role of marja taqlid
(“source of inspiration”)—the leading Shia figure who holds the allegiance of mil ions of Shias regionwide and
worldwide. As to Khamene’i’s health situation, the government acknowledged that he underwent prostate
surgery in September 2014, but he has since appeared in public regularly. Reports in late 2020 that he has
suffered health setbacks have not been widely corroborated. Has not traveled outside Iran since becoming
Supreme Leader. Lives in the Pasteur district of Tehran. He and his wife have four sons and two daughters.
Khamene’i sets overall policy direction, particularly on regional and national security issues, but tends to
allow elected presidents to pursue policy initiatives that they assert advances Iran’s interests, for example the
JCPOA. Throughout career, has consistently taken hardline stances on regional issues, particularly toward
Israel, repeatedly calling it a “cancerous tumor” that needs to be excised from the region. In March 2014,
publicly questioned whether the Holocaust occurred. He is widely believed to fear direct military
confrontation with United States on Iranian soil. He meets with few Western officials and is avowedly
suspicious of relations with the West, particularly the United States, as potentially making Iran vulnerable to
Western cultural influence, spying, acts of sabotage and assassination, and regime destabilization efforts.
Largely bowing to public opinion, Khamene’i acquiesced to the election in 2013 of the relatively moderate
President Hassan Rouhani. In 2019, fol owing the Trump Administration exit from the JCPOA, he directly
criticized President Hassan Rouhani for expecting the United States to uphold the JCPOA long term.
Earlier, he reputedly issued religious proclamation (2003) against Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, and has
publicly (2012) called doing so a “sin.” He ful y backs efforts by the IRGC to support regional pro-Iranian
movements and governments. Earlier in his career, Khamene’i tended to support the business community
(bazaaris), and opposed state control of the economy, but as Supreme Leader he has promoted the need to
develop a self-sufficient economy that can withstand the effects of international sanctions (“resistance
economy”). Attributed late 2017-early 2018 unrest to meddling by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel,
but also acknowledged that protesters had legitimate grievances.
Khamene’i’s office is run by Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, with significant input from Khamene’i’s
second and increasingly influential son, Mojtaba. Khamene’i is advised formally by the Expediency Council, and
informally by Keyhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari and numerous other current and former officials, clerics,
and other notables. Mojtaba was sanctioned by the Trump Administration in November 2019.
Sources: various press. Photograph from

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

Unelected or Indirectly Elected Institutions: The Supreme Leader,
Council of Guardians, and Expediency Council
Iran’s power structure consists of unelected or indirectly elected persons and institutions.
The Supreme Leader
At the apex of the Islamic Republic’s power structure is the “Supreme Leader.” He is chosen by
an elected body—the Assembly of Experts—which also has the constitutional power to remove
him, as well as to redraft Iran’s constitution (see below). A revised constitution is to be submitted
for approval in a national referendum. The Supreme Leader is required to be a senior Shia cleric.
Upon Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, the Assembly selected one of his disciples, Ayatollah Ali
Khamene’i, as Supreme Leader.3 Although he has never had Khomeini’s undisputed political or
religious authority, the powers of the office ensure that Khamene’i is Iran’s paramount leader.
Under the constitution, the Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, giving
him the power to appoint commanders. The Supreme Leader can remove an elected president, if
the judiciary or the Majles (parliament) assert cause for removal. The Supreme Leader appoints
half of the 12-member Council of Guardians, all members of the Expediency Council, the head of
the judiciary, and five out of the nine members of the country’s highest national security body, the
Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which includes the heads of the regime’s top
military, foreign policy, and domestic security organizations. Senior IRGC leader and former
Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, who espouses more moderate views than his IRGC peers, has
headed it since September 2013.4
Succession to Khamene’i
There is no designated successor or immediately obvious choice to succeed Khamene’i. The
Assembly of Experts could conceivably use a constitutional provision to set up a three-person
leadership council as successor rather than select one new Supreme Leader. Khamene’i reportedly
favors Hojjat ol-Eslam Ibrahim Raisi, whom he appointed in March 2019 as head of the judiciary,
and in 2016 to head the powerful Shrine of Imam Reza (Astan-e Qods Razavi) in Mashhad,
which controls vast property and many businesses in the province. Raisi has served as state
prosecutor and was allegedly involved in the 1988 massacre of prisoners and other acts of
repression.5 Raisi lost the May 2017 presidential election to Rouhani, but his win in the 2021
presidential election presumably has improved his chances to become Iran’s top leader.
Raisi’s predecessor as judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani,6 remains a succession candidate.
Another widely mentioned contender is hardline Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad
Council of Guardians
The 12-member Council of Guardians (COG) consists of six Islamic jurists appointed by the
Supreme Leader and six lawyers selected by the judiciary and confirmed by the Majles. Each

3 At the time of his selection as Supreme Leader, Khamene’i was generally referred to at the rank of Hojjat ol-Islam,
one rank below Ayatollah, suggesting his religious elevation was political rather than through traditional mechanisms.
4 Shamkhani was sanctioned by the Administration in January 2020 as part of the Supreme Leader’s office. See CRS
Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman.
5 “Iran cleric linked to 1988 mass executions to lead judiciary.” Associated Press, March 7, 2019.
6 Larijani was sanctioned by the Trump Administration in 2019.
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councilor serves a six-year term, staggered such that half the body turns over every three years.
Currently headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who is over 90 years of age, the conservative-
controlled body reviews legislation to ensure it conforms to Islamic law. It also vets election
candidates by evaluating their backgrounds according to constitutional requirements that each
candidate demonstrate knowledge of Islam, loyalty to the Islamic system of government, and
other criteria that are largely subjective. The COG also certifies election results. Municipal
council candidates are vetted not by the COG but by local committees established by the Majles.
Expediency Council
The Expediency Council was established in 1988 to resolve legislative disagreements between the
Majles and the COG. It has since evolved primarily into a policy advisory body for the Supreme
Leader. Its members serve five-year terms, assisted by researchers and experts who help develop
policy options. Longtime regime stalwart Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani served as the
body’s chairman until his January 2017 death. In August 2017, the Supreme Leader expanded the
council from 42 to 45 members, and former judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi
Shahroudi became chairman. Shahroudi passed away in December 2018 and Sadeq Larijani, who
was then head of the judiciary, was appointed by the Supreme Leader as his replacement. Iran’s
president and speaker of Majles attend the body’s sessions in their official capacities.
Table 1. Major Pro-Regime Institutions and Factions
The regime derives support from a network of organizations and institutions such as those discussed below.
Senior Shia
The most senior Shia clerics, most of whom are in Qom, are generally “quietists”—they
assert that the senior clergy should generally refrain from involvement in politics, although
Ayatol ahs
they do speak out on political issues. The ranks of the most senior clergy include Grand
Ayatol ah Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Grand Ayatol ah Yusuf Sanei. Secretary of State
Pompeo accused Shirazi in a July 22, 2018, speech of enriching himself through il icit trading
of sugar. Another senior cleric is the hardline Ayatol ah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who
represents the “vocal” school of the senior clergy and is an assertive defender of the powers
of the Supreme Leader. He lost his Assembly of Experts seat in February 2016 elections.
Iran has several major parastatal religious foundations, called “bonyads.” Examples include the
Martyr’s Foundation, the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, the Astan Qods Razavi
Foundation (linked to the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad), and the Fifteen Khordad
Foundation (which offers a bounty for implementing Khomeini’s order that Satanic Verses
author Salman Rushdie be kil ed). The bonyads, run by clerics, former IRGC officials, and
other hardliners, control vast amounts of property and valuable businesses, some of which
were built from assets left behind when the Shah and his allies fled Iran in 1979. The bonyads
are loosely regulated, politically influential, and largely exempt from taxation – an exemption
that often causes unrest and protest of privileges enjoyed by regime insiders.
Society of
Longtime organization of moderate-to-hardline clerics. Its Secretary-General is Ayatol ah
Militant Clerics
Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani. Former President Rouhani is a member.
Sources: Various press accounts and author conversations with Iran experts in and outside Washington, DC.
The IRGC is discussed extensively in CRS Report R44017, Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies, by Kenneth
Katzman. See also CRS Insight IN11093, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Named a Terrorist Organization, by Kenneth
Domestic Security Organs
The leaders and senior officials of a variety of overlapping domestic security organizations are
largely under the direct control of the Supreme Leader in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of
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the Armed Forces. State Department and other human rights reports on Iran repeatedly assert that
internal security personnel are not held accountable for human rights abuses. Several security
organizations and their senior leaders are sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses
and other violations of U.S. Executive Orders.7
The domestic security organs include the following:
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a military and
internal security force, and an instrument of Iran’s regional policy. The IRGC is
sanctioned under several U.S. Executive orders, including E.O. 13224 that
sanctions entities determined to be supporting acts of international terrorism. On
April 8, 2019, the IRGC was also designated as a foreign terrorist organization
(FTO), a designation that has not previously been applied to a military
organization of any country. In April 2019, the Supreme Leader replaced IRGC
commander-in-chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari with his deputy, Major
General Hossein Salami. The IRGC-Qods Force is the unit of the IRGC that
operates outside Iran to support pro-Iranian movements and governments.
The Basij. The IRGC‘s domestic security role is implemented primarily through
its volunteer militia force called the Basij. To suppress large and violent
antigovernment demonstrations, the Basij gets backing from the IRGC, whose
bases are located mostly in urban areas. In July 2019, Khamene’i replaced
appointed a new Basij commander, Gholamreza Soleimani, who was sanctioned
by the Administration in January 2020 and who is not related to the late IRGC-
QF commander Qasem Soleimani. The Basij is widely accused of arresting
women who violate the regime’s public dress codes and raiding Western-style
parties that serve alcohol, which is illegal in Iran.
Law Enforcement Forces. The Law Enforcement Forces is an amalgam of
regular police, gendarmerie, and riot police that serve throughout the country.
These forces generally are tasked with containing non-violent demonstrations or
Ministry of Interior. The ministry exercises civilian supervision of Iran’s police
and domestic security forces. The IRGC and Basij do not report to the ministry.
Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). The MOIS conducts domestic
surveillance to identify regime opponents. It also surveils anti-regime activists
abroad through its network of agents placed in Iran’s embassies. It works closely
with IRGC-Qods Force agents outside Iran, although the two institutions
sometimes differ in their approaches, as has been reportedly the case in deciding
on which politicians to support in Iraq.8

7 These persons and entities are listed in: CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman.
8 “Leaked Iranian intelligence reports illustrate the folly of the US’s Middle East strategy.” The Strategist, November
20, 2019.
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Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options

Elected Institutions/Recent Elections
Several major institutional positions are directly elected by the population, but international
observers question the credibility of Iran’s elections because of the role of the COG in vetting
candidates and limiting the size and ideological diversity of the candidate field. Women can vote
and run for most offices, but the COG has consistently interpreted the Iranian constitution as
prohibiting women from running for president. Candidates must receive more than 50% of the
vote to avoid a runoff that is usually held several weeks later.
Another criticism of the political process is the relative absence of political parties. Establishing a
party requires the permission of the Interior Ministry (per Article 10 of Iran’s constitution), but
the standards to obtain approval are high. Since the regime was founded, numerous groups have
filed for permission to operate as parties, but only a few—considered loyal to the regime—have
been granted licenses to operate. Some have been licensed and then banned after their leaders
opposed regime policies, such as the Islamic Iran Participation Front and Organization of
Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, discussed in the text box below.
The Presidency
The top directly elected institution is the presidency. The office is formally and in practice
subordinate to the Supreme Leader, and virtually every president has tried but failed to expand his
authority. Presidential authority, particularly on matters of national security, is circumscribed by
key clerics and the IRGC, but the president has somewhat more autonomy on economic
policymaking. The president appoints and supervises the cabinet, develops the budgets of cabinet
departments, and imposes and collects taxes on corporations and other bodies. The presidency
also runs oversight bodies such as the Anticorruption Headquarters and the General Inspection
Organization, to which government officials are required to submit annual financial disclosures,
and oversees the various official pension funds and government-run social services agencies.
Prior to 1989, Iran had both an elected president and a prime minister selected by the elected
Majles (parliament). However, the holders of the two positions were constantly in institutional
conflict and a 1989 constitutional revision eliminated the prime ministership. Khamene’i has
periodically raised the possibility of eliminating the post of president and restoring the post of
prime minister.
The Majles
Iran’s Majles, or parliament, is a 290-seat, all-elected, unicameral body. There are five reserved
seats for “recognized” minority communities—Jew, Zoroastrian, and Christian (three seats). The
Majles votes on each nominee to a cabinet post, and drafts and acts on legislation. Among its
main duties is to consider and enact a proposed national budget (which runs from March 21 to
March 20 each year, coinciding with Nowruz, the Persian New Year), and it often legislates on
domestic social issues. It tends to defer to executive and security institutions on defense and
foreign policy issues, frequently passing non-binding resolutions supporting regime criticism of
the United States and other Iran adversaries. It is constitutionally required to ratify major
international agreements, and it ratified the JCPOA in October 2015. Women regularly run and
some generally are elected, and there is no quota for the number of women. Majles elections
occur every four years, in the year prior to the presidential elections.
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Iran: Internal Politics and U.S. Policy and Options

The Assembly of Experts
A major but little publicized elected institution is the 88-seat Assembly of Experts. Akin to a
standing electoral college, it is empowered to choose a new Supreme Leader upon the death of
the incumbent, and it formally - although not necessarily in practice - oversees the work of the
Supreme Leader. The Assembly can replace him if necessary, although invoking that power
would most likely occur only in the event of a severe health crisis. The Assembly is also
empowered to draft amendments to the constitution. It generally meets two times a year.
Elections to the Assembly are held every 8-10 years, conducted on a provincial basis. Assembly
candidates must be able to interpret Islamic law. The aging chairman, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza
Mahdavi-Kani, died in 2014. His successor, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, lost his seat in the
Assembly of Experts election on February 26, 2016 (held concurrently with the Majles elections),
and COG Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was appointed concurrently as the assembly
chairman in May 2016.
Previous Elections
Following the presidency of regime stalwart Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani during 1989-1997, a
reformist, Mohammad Khatemi, won landslide victories in 1997 and 2001. However, hardliners
marginalized him by the end of his term in 2005. Aided by widespread voiding of reformist
candidacies by the COG, conservatives won a slim majority of the 290 Majles seats in the
February 20, 2004, elections. In June 2005, the COG allowed eight candidates to compete (out of
more than 1,000 who filed candidacies), including Rafsanjani,9 Ali Larijani, IRGC stalwart
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With reported tacit
backing from Khamene’i, Ahmadinejad advanced to a runoff against Rafsanjani and then won by
a 62% to 36% vote. Splits later erupted among hardliners, and pro-Ahmadinejad and pro-
Khamene’i candidates competed against each other in the March 2008 Majles elections.
Disputed 2009 Election
Reformists sought to unseat Ahmadinejad in the June 12, 2009, presidential election by rallying to
Mir Hossein Musavi, who served as prime minister during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and, to a
lesser extent, former Majles speaker Mehdi Karrubi. The Interior Ministry pronounced
Ahmadinejad the winner (63% of the vote) two hours after the polls closed, prompting Musavi
supporters (who was announced as receiving 35% of the vote) to protest the results as fraudulent.
Some outside analysts said the results tracked pre-election polls.10 Large antigovernment
demonstrations occurred June 13-19, 2009. According to opposition groups, security forces killed
over 100 protesters (the Iranian government figure was 27), including a 19-year-old woman, Neda
Soltani, who became an icon of the uprising, which congealed into the “Green Movement of
Hope and Change.” Some protests in December 2009 overwhelmed regime security forces in
some parts of Tehran, but the movement’s activity declined after the regime successfully
suppressed its demonstration on the February 11, 2010, anniversary of the founding of the Islamic
Republic. As unrest ebbed, a rift opened between Ahmadinejad and Khamene’i. In the March
2012 Majles elections, candidates supported by Khamene’i won 75% of the seats, weakening

9 Rafsanjani was constitutionally permitted to run because a third term would not have been consecutive with his
previous two terms. In the 2001 presidential election, the Council permitted 10 out of the 814 registered candidates.
10 A paper published by Chatham House and the University of St. Andrews strongly questions how Ahmadinejad’s vote
could have been as large as reported by official results, in light of past voting patterns throughout Iran. “Preliminary
Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election,”
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Ahmadinejad. Since leaving office in 2013, and despite being appointed by Khamene’i to the
Expediency Council, Ahmadinejad has emerged as a regime critic meanwhile also returning to his
prior work as a professor of civil engineering.
Reformist Leaders and Organizations
The figures discussed below are widely termed “reformists” – they seek political freedoms but do not advocate
replacement of the regime. Since the 2009 Green Movement uprising, the senior reformist leaders have apparently
have been displaced by younger, anti-regime activists skil ed in the use of social media. Yet, the suppression of
reformist leaders and organizations remains a key rallying point for the broader opposition to the regime. The
persons below are a small sample of political opponents; the State Department’s 2020 “Outlaw Regime” report
says that there are more than 800 prisoners of conscience detained in Iran.
Mir Hossein Musavi is the titular leader of the Green Movement, the coalition of youth and intellectuals that led
the 2009-2010 uprising. A noncleric and former Khomeini aide, Musavi served as foreign minister in 1980 and as
Iran’s last prime minister from 1981 to 1989, at which time constitutional reforms abolished the post. An advocate
of state-control ed economy, as prime minister, Musavi often feuded with Khamene’i, who was president at that
time. He was arrested in 2011 for sedition and he and his wife, activist Zahra Rahnevard, remain under house
arrest. Khamene’i has termed Musavi and Karrubi (below) as “seditionists” and insists that they remain confined.
Mehdi Karrubi is an Iranian cleric, former Majles Speaker (1989-1992, 2000-2004), and supporter of the Green
Movement. Failed presidential campaigns in 2005 and 2009 led Karrubi to question the elections’ validity and to
support runner-up Mir Hossein Musavi’s dispute over the election in 2009. Imprisoned in the 1970s for protesting
the government of Mohammad Reza Shah, Karrubi became a leading politician of the Islamic left fol owing the 1979
revolution. Karrubi shares Musavi’s political views on the need for state-control ed economy and civil rights for
women. In 2014, Karrubi was moved from a detention facility to house arrest. In August 2017, Karrubi challenged
the regime by going on a hunger strike to demand a formal trial and a withdrawal of security forces from his
home. Security forces left but remain outside his home to control visits. He reportedly is in poor health.
Pro-reformist Organizations
The reformists are supported by several long-standing factions that once supported the regime but fell out with
hardliners and have become vocal regime critics.
National Trust (Etemad-e-Melli). Opposition grouping formed by Karrubi after his defeat in the 2005 election. Some
of its leaders, such as Hengameh Shahidi, have been arrested and harassed by authorities.
Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF). The most prominent and best organized pro-reform grouping, but in 2009 lost
political ground to Green Movement groups. IIPF leaders include Mohammed Khatemi’s brother, Mohammad Reza
Khatemi (deputy speaker in the 2000-2004 Majles) and Mohsen Mirdamadi. Backed Musavi in June 2009 election,
and several IIPF leaders detained and prosecuted in postelection dispute. The party was outlawed in 2010.
Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIR). Composed mainly of left-leaning Iranian figures who support
state control of the economy, but want greater political pluralism and relaxation of rules on social behavior. A
major constituency of the reformist camp. Its leader is former Heavy Industries Minister Behzad Nabavi, who
supported Musavi in 2009 election and has been incarcerated for most of the time since June 2009. The
organization was outlawed by the regime simultaneously with the outlawing of the IIPF, above.
Combatant Clerics Association. The group was formed in 1988 and its name is similar to the Society of Militant
Clerics, but the group is run by reformists. Leading figures include former president Mohammad Khatemi.
Rouhani’s Election Wins and Presidency
In the June 14, 2013, presidential elections, held concurrently with municipal elections, the major
candidates included the following:
 Several hardliners that included Qalibaf (see above); Khamene’i foreign policy
advisor Velayati; and then-chief nuclear negotiator Seyed Jalilli.
 Former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, a moderate and Rafsanjani ally.
The COG denied Rafsanjani’s candidacy, which shocked many Iranians because of Rafsanjani’s
prominence, as well as that of prominent Ahmadinejad ally, Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i.
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Green Movement supporters, who were expected to boycott the vote, mobilized behind Rouhani
after regime officials stressed that they were committed to a fair election. The vote produced a
70% turnout and a first-round victory for Rouhani, garnering about 50.7% of the 36 million votes
cast. Hardliners generally garnered control of municipal councils in the major cities. Rouhani’s
first term cabinet contained a mixture of hardliners and moderates, including the moderates
Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, appointed
concurrently as foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, and Bijan Zanganeh, returning as
Oil Minister. Zanganeh replaced Rostam Qasemi, who was associated with the corporate arm of
the IRGC. The notable hardliners included Defense Minister Hosein Dehgan, an IRGC stalwart
and early organizer of the IRGC’s Lebanon contingent that eventually composed a significant
component of the IRGC-Qods Force.11 Another hardliner was Justice Minister Mostafa Pour-
Mohammadi who, as deputy intelligence minister in late 1980s, reportedly was a decisionmaker
in the 1988 mass executions of Iranian prisoners.
Majles and Assembly of Experts Elections in 2016
On February 26, 2016, Iran held concurrent elections for the Majles and for the Assembly of
Experts. The CoG approved 6,200 Majles candidates, including 586 female candidates, and
invalidated about 6,000, including all but 100 reformists. Pro-Rouhani candidates won nearly half
the seats, and the number of avowed hardliners in the body was reduced significantly.
Independents won about 50 seats. Seventeen women were elected—the largest number since the
revolution. The body reelected Ali Larijani as Speaker.
For the Assembly of Experts election, 161 candidates were approved out of 800 who applied to
run. Reformists and pro-Rouhani candidates defeated two prominent hardliners—the incumbent
Assembly Chairman Mohammad Yazdi and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. COG
head Ayatollah Jannati retained his seat, but came in last for the 30 seats elected from Tehran
Province. He was subsequently named chairman of the body.
Presidential Election of May 19, 2017
In the May 19, 2017 election, Rouhani won re-election with about 57% of the vote. He defeated a
major figure, Hojjat ol-Eslam Ibrahim Raisi, a close ally of Khamene’i, even though other
hardliners dropped out of the race to improve Raisi’s prospects.
Municipal elections were held concurrently. After vetting by local committees established by the
Majles, about 260,000 candidates competed for about 127,000 seats nationwide. More than 6% of
the candidates were women. The alliance of reformists and moderate-conservatives won control
of the municipal councils of Iran’s largest cities, including all 21 seats on the Tehran municipal
Rouhani’s second term cabinet nominations retained most of the same officials in key posts,
including Zarif as Foreign Minister. In February 2019, after being excluded from a leadership
meeting with visiting President Bashar Al Asad of Syria, Zarif announced his resignation.
Rouhani did not accept the resignation and Zarif stayed on. Key changes to the second-term
cabinet include the following:
 Minister of Justice Seyed Alireza Avayee replaced Pour-Mohammadi. Formerly a
state prosecutor, Avayee oversaw trials of protesters in the 2009 uprising and is
subject to EU travel ban and asset freeze.

11 See: Katzman, Kenneth. “The Warriors of Islam: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.” Westview Press, 1993.
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 Defense Minister Amir Hatami became the first non-IRGC Defense Minister in
more than 20 years and the first regular military (Artesh) officer in that position.
 The cabinet had two female vice presidents, and one other woman as a member
of the cabinet (but not heading any ministry).
Majles Elections on February 21, 2020
The latest Majles elections were held on February 21, 2020. The 2018 U.S. exit from the Iran
nuclear deal and the outpouring of public grieving for the U.S. killing of IRGC-Qods Force
commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 appeared to shift public support toward hardliners.
During December 2019, about 15,000 candidates filed candidacies for the 290 Majles seats. The
COG disqualified nearly half, including 90 incumbents that were mostly professed moderates or
reformists. Among the reformists not allowed to run was Rouhani’s son-in-law Kambiz
Mehdizadeh.12 The turnout was about 42%, lower than in most recent Iranian elections, and
hardliners won an overwhelming 230 of the 290 seats, including sweeping Tehran’s 30 seats in
the body.13 The hardliner victory contributed to the IRGC stalwart and former Tehran mayor
Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf’s selection as Speaker when the body convened on May 28, 2020.
Presidential Election of June 2021
The most recent presidential elections, in which Rouhani was not eligible to run again, was held
on June 18, 2021. The CoG excluded from the race moderate conservative Ali Larijani, and pro-
reform First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri - the two most significant potential challengers to
Khamene’i protégé and judiciary chief Ibrahim Raisi. With those exclusions, the election
unfolded as expected, with the overwhelming vote for Raisi, a mid-ranking Shia cleric, in a low-
turnout election. He won almost 18 million of the nearly 29 million ballots cast, according to
Iran’s Interior Minister. However, many reform-minded Iranians refused to take part in an
election widely seen as a foregone conclusion; turnout was 49% - the lowest since the
establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The small vote for the only reformist candidate
allowed to run – outgoing Central Bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati – reflected that boycott.

President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi
Ebrahim Raisi was born in 1960 to a cleric in the home of the country’s holiest Shia Muslim shrine in Mashad and
attended seminary at the age of 15. After the revolution, he joined the judiciary as a prosecutor and was trained
by Ayatol ah Khamenei. In that role, he served as one of four judges who adjudicated secret tribunals in 1988 (also
known as “death commissions”), allegedly responsible for an estimated 5,000 executions of political activists and
leftist prisoners.
Raisi has long been seen as Khamenei’s successor, and has risen through the ranks of Iran’s key institutions. In
2016, Raisi was named custodian of one of Iran’s most important and wealthiest religious foundations, the Astan-e

12 US Institute of Peace. Iran Primer. “Iran’s 2020 Parliamentary Elections.” February 3, 2020.
13 “Factbox: The outcome of Iran’s 2020 parliamentary elections.” Atlantic Council, February 26, 2020.
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Quds-e Razavi, which manages the large Shia shrine in Mashad and has assets reportedly worth $15 bil ion. He
then competed in the 2017 presidential elections, coming in second to Hassan Rouhani with 38% of the vote. Two
years later, Ayatol ah Khamenei named Raisi as head of the judiciary, and shortly thereafter Raisi was elected as
deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for electing the next Supreme Leader. As
judiciary chief, he has reduced death sentences and executions for drug-related offenses).
Raisi campaigned on a platform of job creation and anti-corruption, and won 62% of the vote in the 2021 election,
with turnout at just under 49% (a record low since the 1979 revolution). Roughly 3.7 mil ion Iranians turned in
blank or protest ballots. Pol ing stations in Tehran had particularly low turnout (34%). Raisi wil become the first
Iranian president to be sanctioned by the U.S. before entering office: President Trump sanctioned Raisi in 2019 for
human rights abuses committed against protesters during the Green Movement that fol owed the 2009 election.
Raisi is married and has two adult daughters.
Photograph: Maryam Kamyab/Mehr News Agency. Licensed CC BY 4.0,
Periodic Unrest Challenges the Regime14
The regime has faced periodic flare-ups of significant unrest. In December 2017, protests erupted
in more than 80 cities, mostly based on economic conditions but perhaps also reflecting
opposition to Iran’s leadership and the expenditure of resources on interventions throughout the
Middle East. The government defused the unrest by coupling acknowledgment of the legitimacy
of some demonstrator grievances with use of repressive force and a shutdown of access to social
media sites such as the messaging system called “Telegram.”15 Iranian official media reported that
25 were killed and nearly 4,000 were arrested during that unrest. In mid-2018, possibly to try to
divert blame for Iran’s economic situation, the regime established special “anti-corruption courts”
that have, in some cases, imposed the death penalty on businessmen accused of taking advantage
of reimposed sanctions for personal profit.16
During 2018-19, small protests and other acts of defiance took place, including shop closures in
the Tehran bazaar in July 2018 and protests by some women against the strict public dress code.
Workers in various industries, including trucking and teaching, conducted strikes to demand
higher wages to help cope with rising prices. In early 2019, protests took place in southwestern
Iran in response to the government’s missteps in dealing with the effects of significant flooding in
that area. The regime tasked the leadership of the relief efforts to the IRGC and IRGC-QF,
working with Iraqi Shia militias who are powerful on the Iraqi side of the border.
In November 2019, significant unrest flared again after the government announced an immediate
reduction in subsidies for the price of gasoline. Prices rose 50% for amounts up to 15 gallons per
month, and 300% (to about $1 per gallon) for amounts purchased beyond that amount. The
government explained the subsidy reduction as a consensus government decision that was
necessary in order to increase cash transfers to the poorest 75% of the population. In response to
the unrest, the government allowed peaceful protests, used repression against violent acts, and
shut down access to the internet and social media. As he has done in past periods of unrest,
Supreme Leader Khamene’i blamed the protests on agitation by foreign powers and on exiled
opposition groups. He also stated that dissatisfaction over the fuel price hikes was

14 The following information is derived from a wide range of press reporting in major newspapers and websites. Some
Iranian activist sources report wide variations in protest sizes, cities involved, numbers killed or arrested, and other
figures. CRS has no way to corroborate exact numbers cited.
15 National Council of Resistance, “Khamene’i’s Belated Confession to Injustice and Inability to Reform, a Desperate
Attempt to Escape Overthrow,” February 19, 2018.
16 Erin Cunningham. “In Iran, Graft Can Lead to the Gallows.” Washington Post, December 1, 2018.
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“understandable.” On November 20, 2019, President Rouhani stated that the unrest had been put
down. Amnesty International asserted that over 300 protesters had been killed by security forces,
and thousands arrested.17 The Iranian government asserted the figure was “fabricated.” U.S.
officials concluded in January 2020 that security forces had killed 1,500 protesters in the unrest.18
In the aftermath of the unrest, the State Department solicited Iranians to send photos and other
information to the State Department documenting the Iranian crackdown and any other instances
of regime human rights abuses.
Unrest re-emerged briefly in January 2020 after the government admitted – after several days of
concealment – that its military forces had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet in the
hours after Iran launched its January 8, 2020, missile strike in Iraq that was retaliation for the
U.S. killing of IRGC-QF commander Soleimani. All 176 passengers, which included 82 Iranians,
were killed. There were sporadic incidents of unrest, including in the nation’s prisons, to protest
the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in the winter-spring of 2020. U.S. officials
asserted in 2020 that the government’s response to the outbreak lacked transparency.19 There was
renewed unrest beginning July 15, 2021, which began in southwest Iran (Khuzestan Province) in
response to water shortages, but has spread to several major cities as a protest against the
regime’s performance, repression, and corruption.20
The Trump Administration supported each wave of protests by expressing solidarity with the
protesters and, in some cases, imposing sanctions on regime officials connected with repressing
the unrest. In response to the 2017 unrest, the Administration requested U.N. Security Council
meetings to consider Iran’s crackdown on the unrest, although no formal U.N. action was taken,
and sanctioned then-judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani. In 2020, the Administration sanctioned
several Iranian security personnel responsible for killing numerous protesters that had fled to, and
purportedly briefly seized control of, the small city of Mah Shahr during the November 2019
unrest. On July 28, 2021, the Biden Administration condemned “violence against peaceful
protestors” in the context of the water shortage protests and expressed concern about the regime’s
shutdown of some access to the Internet, a tactic intended to curb the protests.
In the 116th Congress, H.Res. 752 passed the House on January 28, 2020. The resolution, among
other provisions: urged the Administration to work to convene emergency sessions of the United
Nations Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn the ongoing
human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian regime and establish a mechanism by which
the Security Council can monitor such violations; and encouraged the Administration to provide
assistance to the Iranian people to have free and uninterrupted access to the Internet, including by
broadening a general license for U.S. exports to Iran of equipment that citizens can use to
circumvent regime censorship of the Internet.

17 “Iran: Thousands arbitrarily detained and at risk of torture in chilling post-protest crackdown,” Amnesty
International, December 16, 2019.
18 This decision was allegedly based on a Reuters report that said it had obtained information from security officials
inside Iran. “US Confirms Report Citing Iran Officials as Saying 1,500 Killed in Protests.” Voice of America.
December 23, 2019.
19 Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights for 2020. Iran.
20 Iran Says Police Officer Killed In Sixth Night Of Protests Over Water Shortages. RFE/RL, July 21, 2021.
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Demographics/Ethnic and Religious Minorities
General. Iran’s population is about 83 mil ion persons. About 60% is Persian; about 20%-25% is Azeri; about 7%
are Kurds; about 4% are Arabs; and about 2% are Baluchis. Iran is about 99% Muslim, of which more than 90% are
Shias; about 8% are Sunnis; and 1% are Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Baha’i’, or other.
Azeris. Azeris, who have a Turkic ethnicity, are predominant in northern Iran, particularly in areas bordering
Azerbaijan. Azeris in Iran are mostly well integrated into government and society (Khamene’i himself is of Azeri
heritage), but many Azeris complain of ethnic and linguistic discrimination. Each year, there are arrests of Azeris
who press for their right to celebrate their culture and history. The government accuses them of separatism.
Kurds. There are about 5 mil ion-11 mil ion Kurds in Iran. The Kurdish language is not banned, but schools do not
teach it and Kurdish political organizations and media outlets are routinely closed for supporting greater Kurdish
autonomy or for allegedly supporting Kurdish armed factions. In May 2015, violent unrest broke out in the
Kurdish city of Mahabad after a local woman was kil ed in a hotel there while with a member of Iran’s intelligence
services. Iranian Kurds recruited by the Islamic State terrorist organization attacked Iran’s parliament and the
tomb of Ayatol ah Khomeini in June 2017, kil ing 17 persons.
Arabs. Ethnic Arabs are prominent in southwestern Iran, particularly Khuzestan Province, where they are widely
referred to as Ahwazi Arabs. The approximately 3 mil ion Arabs in Iran encounter systematic oppression and
discrimination, including torture and a prohibition on speaking or studying Arabic.
Baluchis. Iran has about 1.4 mil ion Baluchis, living primarily in poorly developed and economically depressed
southeastern Iran, in the area bordering Pakistan. Baluchis in Iran are mostly Sunni Muslims.
. Christians, who number about 300,000, are a “protected minority” with three seats reserved in the
Majles. The majority of Christians in Iran are ethnic Armenians, with Assyrian Christians contributing about
10,000-20,000 practitioners. The IRGC scrutinizes churches and Christian religious practice, and numerous
Christians remain incarcerated for actions related to religious practice, including using wine in services. At times,
there have been unexplained assassinations of pastors in Iran, as well as prosecutions for converting from Islam to
Christianity and for proselytizing. One pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, has been repeatedly arrested.
Jews. Also a “recognized minority” with one seat in the Majles, the approximately 10,000-member (according to
the Tehran Jewish Committee) Jewish community enjoys substantial freedoms. However, the Iranian government
sometimes promotes anti-Semitic rhetoric in state-sanctioned media. Then-President Ahmadinejad often
questioned the existence of the Holocaust. In June 1999, Iran arrested 13 Jews that it said were part of an
“espionage ring” for Israel, and 10 were convicted. All were released by April 2003.
Baha’is. There are an estimated 20,000 Baha’is in Iran, where this religion started, based on a 19th century self-
declared Iranian prophet named Baha’ul ah. The regime has subjected the Baha’is to unrelenting repression as
members of what it describes as a “heretical” religion. Baha’i leaders have been repeatedly imprisoned, land and
property of Baha’i adherents has been seized, Baha’is are banned from serving in government, and are routinely
discriminated against for employment. Virtually yearly congressional resolutions have condemned the repression
of Iran’s Baha’is. The March 17, 2017, report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Iran (A/HRC/34/65) contained an
extensive appendix listing Baha’is in prison in Iran. Two of seven Baha’i leaders (the “Yaran”) sentenced in 2008 to
20 years imprisonment for espionage were released in the fall of 2018; the other five remain in jail.
Sufis. There might be as many as 5 mil ions Sufis in Iran. In February 2018, Iran arrested 300 Sufis demanding the
release of their fellow faith members. Hundreds of Sufis remain in prison for their religious beliefs. Human Rights
Watch characterized the arrests as “one of the largest crackdowns against a religious minority in Iran in a decade.”

Sources: Various press reports, U.N. reports, and human rights organization reports.
Human Rights Practices21
U.S. State Department reports and reports from a U.N. Special Rapporteur have long cited Iran
for a wide range of abuses—aside from its suppression of political opposition and use of force
against protesters. Such abuses include use of capital punishment, executions of minors, denial of
fair public trial, harsh and life-threatening conditions in prison, unlawful detention and torture,

21 Much of the information in this section comes from the State Department Country Report on Human Rights for
2020; Iran.
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restrictions on free expression, trafficking in persons, child labor, widespread corruption, and
discrimination against sexual minorities, including the death penalty for consensual same-sex
relations. Other than the release of U.S. and dual-nationals held, curtailing Iran’s human rights
abuses has not been named by recent U.S. administrations as a U.S. condition for improved
State Department and U.N. Special Rapporteur reports have noted that the 2013 revisions to the
Islamic Penal Code and the 2015 revisions to the Criminal Procedure Code made some reforms,
including eliminating death sentences for children convicted of drug-related offenses and
protecting the rights of the accused. A “Citizen’s Rights Charter,” issued December 19, 2016, at
least nominally protects free expression and is intended to raise public awareness of citizen rights.
It also purportedly commits the government to implement the charter’s 120 articles. The State
Department’s recent human rights reports say that key charter protections for individual rights of
freedom to communicate and access information have not been implemented.
A U.N. Special Rapporteur on Iran human rights was reestablished in March 2011 by the U.N.
Human Rights Council (22 to 7 vote), resuming work done by a Special Rapporteur on Iran
human rights during 1988-2002. The rapporteur appointed in 2016, Asma Jahangir, issued two
Iran reports, the latest of which was dated August 14, 2017 (A/72/322), before passing away in
February 2018. The Special Rapporteur mandate was extended on March 24, 2018, and British-
Pakistani lawyer Javaid Rehman was appointed in July 2018. The U.N. General Assembly has
insisted that Iran cooperate by allowing the Special Rapporteur to visit Iran, but Iran has instead
only responded to Special Rapporteur inquiries through agreed “special procedures.” In remarks
unveiling the 2021 report, the Special Rapporteur outlined the “bleak reality of the human rights
situation in Iran, characterized by the most egregious violations and continued impunity” and
expressed “deep concern” regarding the “lack of independent, transparent and prompt
investigations into the events of November 2019 [...] which caused at least 304 deaths.”22Despite
the criticism of its human rights record, on April 29, 2010, Iran acceded to the U.N. Commission
on the Status of Women. It also sits on the boards of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) and
UNICEF. Iran’s U.N. dues are about $9 million per year.
Women’s Rights
Women can vote and run for office, but women who have sought to run for president have always been barred
from doing so by the Council of Guardians. They have served in cabinet and vice presidential positions, as well as
in mayoral posts, but are not permitted to serve as judges. As noted above, in August 2017, Rouhani named three
women to his second-term cabinet, but he disappointed women’s groups by not appointing any to ministerial
Women are often arrested if they do not cover their head in public, generally with a garment called a hijab, but, in
December 2017, authorities announced they would no longer arrest dress code violators. Instead, violators are
required to attend classes to correct their behavior. Stil , small numbers of women in various cities have been
protesting the code since February 2018 by taking off their hijab and holding them up in front of gathered crowds.
Government agents have arrested some of those protesters and, in May 2018, one such activist was sentenced to
20 years in prison.
Women are permitted to drive and work outside the home without restriction, including owning their own
businesses, although less than 20% of the workforce is female. Despite female majorities in higher education in
past years, women are a third less likely to work after graduation than their male counterparts.
Women do not have inheritance or divorce rights equal to those of men, and their court testimony carries half
the weight of a male’s. A woman’s husband has the power to restrict his wife’s travel abroad, as well as limit her

22 United Nations Human Rights Council, “Statement by Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human
rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, at the forty-sixth session of the Human Rights Council - Item 4,” March 9, 2021.
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job prospects. Laws against rape are not enforced effectively. The law permits a man to have up to four wives as
well as “temporary wives”—an arrangement reached after a religious ceremony and civil contract outlining the
relationship’s conditions. Women have also been banned from attending male sports matches, although that
restriction was relaxed in 2017.23
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Iran human rights noted in 2021 that “egregious gender-based discrimination
persists in law, practice and societal attitudes, disempowering women and girls from participating and contributing
in society.”24 He also expressed concern over the 16,000 child marriages involving girls aged 10-14 registered
between March and September 2020.
In early August 2020, Iranian women (and some men) took to social media to describe and decry rape and sexual
assault in what some observers referred to as the country’s #MeToo moment. Speaking out about sexual
harassment and assault in Iran is complicated by the fact that the country’s legal system criminalizes consensual
sexual relations outside of marriage, and the mandatory punishment for rape is the death penalty.25 Observers
have also pointed to societal pressures that silence victims, such as the widespread practice of victim blaming or
the fear of retaliation.26 Human rights organizations have subsequently called upon Iranian lawmakers to finalize a
draft bil on violence against women that has been in review since September 2019.27
Iran has an official body, the High Council for Human Rights, headed by former Foreign Minister
Mohammad Javad Larijani (brother of the Majles speaker). It generally defends the government’s
actions to outside bodies rather than oversees the government’s human rights practices, but
Larijani, according to the Special Rapporteur, has questioned the effectiveness of drug-related
executions and other government policies.
As part of its efforts to try to compel Iran to improve its human rights practices, the United States
has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials alleged to have committed human rights abuses, and on
firms that help Iranian authorities censor or monitor the internet. Human rights-related sanctions
are analyzed in significant detail in CRS Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman.

Table 2. Human Rights Practices: General Categories
Media Freedoms
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance monitors journalist reporting from Iran as
well as media and communications operations. The government continues to block pro-
reform websites, social media applications, and blogs—particularly during times of unrest—
and to close newspapers critical of the government. Iran continues to arrest some activists
who use social media to agitate against the government. Iran has set up a national network
that has a monopoly on internet service for Iranians.
Labor Restrictions
Independent unions are legal but are restricted in practice. Many trade unionists remain in
jail for protesting unpaid wages, precarious working conditions, and poor living conditions,
or for peaceful trade union activities. The one authorized national labor organization is a
state-control ed “Workers’ House” umbrella but others, such as the several unions
representing Iran’s teachers, are tolerated.
Religious Freedom
Each year since 1999, the Secretary of State has designated Iran as a “Country of Particular
Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for engaging in or
tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom. No sanctions have been added
on Iran under IRFA, on the grounds that Iran is already subject to extensive U.S. sanctions.
The constitution specifies Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion and restrictions on

23 James Dorsey, “Bowing To Pressure: Iran Grants Women Spectators Access to Sporting Event,” Huffington Post,
February 20, 2017.
24 “Statement by Javaid Rehman,” March 9, 2021.
25 Tara Sepehri Far, “Iran is having its #MeToo moment,” Al Jazeera, September 9, 2020.
26 Nazila Fathi, “Iran’s “#MeToo” moment,” Middle East Institute, August 28, 2020. See also, Maziar Motamedi,
“Iranians break atboos with their own version of #MeToo,” Al Jazeera, September 22, 2020.
27 “Iran: Adopt Draft Law to Protect Women: As Outrage against Abuses Grows, Fix Bill’s Major Gaps and Pass It,”
Human Rights Watch, December 4, 2020.
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religious freedom for some non-Shia groups are widely reported. Iran’s penal code
provides the death penalty for attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as
moharebeh (enmity against God) and sabb al-nabi (insulting the prophets)—crimes applied
to oppositionists.
Executions Policy
Iran’s per capita execution rate is among the highest in the world, despite recent reforms
to reduce the number of executions for drug offenses. In 2020, at least 267 executions
took place, including at least four child offenders. Iran is a party to the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is
obligated to cease the executions of minors. Iran has not held accountable officials involved
in the summer 1988 executions of thousands of prisoners.
Human Trafficking
Since 2005, State Department “Trafficking in Persons” reports have placed Iran in Tier 3
(worst level) for failing to take significant action to prevent trafficking in persons. Iranian
women, boys, and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation in Iran as well as to Pakistan,
the Persian Gulf, and Europe. The 2021 report also notes “a government policy or
government pattern of recruiting and using child soldiers.”
Iran’s judiciary continues to sanction corporal punishment, including flogging, blinding,
Punishments/Stoning stoning, and amputation. In 2002, the then-head of Iran’s judiciary issued a ban on stoning.
However, Iranian officials later called that directive “advisory,” thus putting stoning
sentences at the discretion of individual judges. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand
Center, a US-based human rights organization working on Iran, from January 2000 to
November 2020, the Iranian authorities carried out at least 129 amputations and flogged at
least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children.28
Sources: Most recent State Department reports on human rights practices, on international religious freedom,
and trafficking in persons.
U.S.-Iran Relations, U.S. Policy, and Options
The February 11, 1979, fall of the Shah of Iran led to a dissolution of U.S.-Iran relations. The
Carter Administration’s efforts to build a relationship with the new regime in Iran ended after the
November 4, 1979, takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radical pro-Khomeini “Students in
the Line of the Imam.” The 66 U.S. diplomats there were held hostage for 444 days, and released
pursuant to the January 20, 1981, Algiers Accords. Their release was completed minutes after
President Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981.29 The United States broke diplomatic
relations with Iran on April 7, 1980, two weeks before the failed U.S. military attempt to rescue
the hostages (“Desert One”).
Iran has since pursued policies that every successive U.S. Administration has considered inimical
to U.S. interests in the Near East region and beyond, including in particular the development of
advanced weapons programs, an expanding nuclear program, and support for regional armed
factions.30 Iran’s authoritarian political system and human rights abuses have contributed to the
U.S.-Iran rift.
The two countries have minimal official direct contact. Iran has an interest section in Washington,
D.C., under the auspices of the Embassy of Pakistan, and staffed by Iranian Americans. The
former Iranian Embassy closed in April 1980 when the two countries broke diplomatic relations,
and remains under the control of the State Department. Iran’s Mission to the United Nations in

28 “Iran: six men face amputation punishments for 'robbery',” Amnesty International, December 3, 2020.
29 The text of the Algiers Accords can be found at
between-iran-and-the-us-to-resolve-the-hostage-situation.html. The technical name of the Accords was: “The
Declaration of the Government of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria,” reflecting that it was a result of a
request by Iran and the United States for Algerian mediation of the hostage crisis.
30 Those policies are assessed in CRS Report R44017, Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies, by Kenneth Katzman.
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New York runs most of Iran’s diplomacy inside the United States. The U.S. interests section in
Tehran, under the auspices of the Embassy of Switzerland, has no American personnel. In May
2015, the two governments granted each other permission to move their respective interests
sections to more spacious locations. Since April 2019, Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations
has been Majid Takht Ravanchi. U.S. officials and U.S. government employees, including
Members of Congress and staff, generally are not granted visas by Iran to visit.
The following sections analyze some key hallmarks of past U.S. policies toward Iran.
Reagan Administration: Iran Placed on Terrorism List
The Reagan Administration designated Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism” in January 1984,
largely in response to Iran’s backing for the October 1983 bombing of the Marine Barracks in
Beirut.31 The Administration also “tilted” toward Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.32 During
1987-1988, at the height of that war, U.S. naval forces fought several skirmishes with Iranian
naval elements while protecting oil shipments transiting the Persian Gulf from Iranian mines and
other attacks. On April 18, 1988, Iran lost one-quarter of its larger naval ships in an engagement
with the U.S. Navy (“Operation Praying Mantis”), including a frigate sunk. However, in 1986, the
Administration provided some arms to Iran (“TOW” anti-tank weapons and I-Hawk air defense
batteries) in exchange for Iran’s help in the releasing of U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian
Hezbollah in Lebanon (“Iran-Contra Affair”). On July 3, 1988, U.S. forces in the Gulf mistakenly
shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Gulf, killing all 290 on board, almost all of whom were
Iranian nationals, contributing to Iran’s decision to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 598
that provided for a cease-fire with Iraq in August 1988.
George H. W. Bush Administration: “Goodwill Begets Goodwill”
The George H.W. Bush Administration appeared to hold out prospects for improved U.S.-Iran
relations. In his January 1989 inauguration speech, President George H.W. Bush, stated that
“goodwill begets goodwill” with respect to Iran, reportedly implying that U.S.-Iran relations
could improve if Iran helped obtain the release of remaining U.S. hostages held by Hezbollah in
Lebanon. Iran’s apparent assistance led to the release of all remaining U.S. hostages by the end of
1991. No U.S.-Iran thaw followed, possibly because Iran continued to back violent groups
opposed to the Administration’s push for Arab-Israeli peace that followed. Iran benefited
strategically from the Bush Administration’s 1991 defeat of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and
pro-Iranian groups in Iraq (?) launched a significant but ultimately unsuccessful uprising against
Saddam Hussein’s regime in the aftermath of that war.
Clinton Administration: “Dual Containment”
The Clinton Administration articulated a strategy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq—an
attempt to keep both countries simultaneously weak rather than alternately tilting to one or the
other.33 As part of that policy, in 1995-1996, the Administration and Congress banned U.S. trade
and investment with Iran and imposed penalties on foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector, in
response to Iran’s support for terrorist groups seeking to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace
process. The election of the moderate Mohammad Khatemi as president in May 1997 precipitated

31 The terrorism list was established in 1979 under Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act.
32 Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis (1991), p. 168.
33 Speech by NSC Senior Director for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk, to the Soref Symposium of the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. “The Clinton Administration’s Approach to the Middle East.” 1993.
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a U.S. offer of direct dialogue, but Khatemi, possibly under pressure from Iran’s hardliner refused
to enter into direct talks. As part of the unsuccessful attempt to reach out to Khatemi’s
government, in June 1998, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for mutual
confidence building measures that could lead to a “road map” for normalization. In a March 17,
2000, speech, Secretary Albright admitted past U.S. interference in Iran.
George W. Bush Administration: Iran Part of “Axis of Evil”
In his January 2002 State of the Union message, President Bush named Iran as part of an “axis of
evil” including Iraq and North Korea.34 However, the Administration enlisted Iran’s diplomatic
help in efforts to try to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq.35 The
Administration rebuffed a reported May 2003 Iranian overture, transmitted by the Swiss
Ambassador to Iran, for an agreement on all major issues of mutual concern (“grand bargain”
proposal).36 State Department officials disputed that the proposal was fully vetted within Iran’s
leadership. The Administration aided victims of the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran,
including through U.S. military deliveries into Iran.
As Iran’s nuclear program advanced, the Administration worked with several European countries
to persuade Iran to agree to limit its nuclear program. President Bush’s January 20, 2005, second
inaugural address and his January 31, 2006, State of the Union message stated that the United
States would be a close ally of a “free and democratic” Iran—phrasing that suggested support for
regime change.37
Obama Administration: Pressure, Engagement, and the JCPOA
President Obama asserted that there was an opportunity to persuade Iran to limit its nuclear
program through diplomacy and to potentially improve U.S.-Iran relations more broadly. The
approach emerged in President Obama’s first message to the Iranian people on the occasion of
Nowruz (Persian New Year, March 21, 2009), in which he stated that the United States “is now
committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing
constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.”38 He referred
to Iran as “The Islamic Republic of Iran,” appearing to reject a policy of regime change. The
Administration reportedly also loosened restrictions on U.S. diplomats’ meeting with their Iranian
counterparts at international meetings. President Obama said that he exchanged several letters
with Supreme Leader Khamene’i, expressing an intent to engage Iran.
In 2009, Iran’s crackdown on the Green Movement uprising and its refusal to immediately accept
limits on its nuclear program contributed to an Administration shift to a “two track” strategy:
stronger economic pressure coupled with offers of sanctions relief if Iran accepted nuclear
program limitations. International sanctions imposed on Iran during 2010-2013 received broad
international cooperation and caused significant economic difficulty in Iran. In early 2013, the
Administration began direct but unpublicized talks with Iranian officials in the Sultanate of Oman
on a nuclear accord.39 Apparently seeking to capitalize on the election of Rouhani in June 2013,

34 Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. Washington Post, January 29, 2002.
35 Robin Wright, “U.S. In ‘Useful’ Talks with Iran,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2003.
36 “Bush Team Snubbed `Grand Bargain’ on Iran’s Atomic Work in 2003.” Bloomberg, December 10, 2007.
37 “Strategy on Iran Stirs New Debate at White House,” New York Times, June 16, 2007.
38 “Barack Obama offers Iran ‘new beginning’ with video message.” The Guardian, March 20, 2009.
39 “Inside the secret US-Iran diplomacy that sealed nuke deal.” Al Monitor, August 11, 2015.
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President Obama’s September 24, 2013, U.N. General Assembly speech confirmed an exchange
of letters with Rouhani stating U.S. willingness to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully and that
the United States “[is] not seeking regime change.”40 The two presidents spoke by phone on
September 27, 2013—the first U.S.-Iran contact at that level since Iran’s revolution.
After the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015, the United States and Iran held bilateral meetings at
the margins of all nuclear talks and in other settings, covering bilateral issues. President Obama
expressed hope that the JCPOA would “usher in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations,”41 while at
the same time asserting that the JCPOA benefitted U.S. national security on its own merits. Still, a
broad warming of U.S.-Iran relations was elusive.
 Coinciding with Implementation Day of the JCPOA (January 16, 2016), dual
Iranian-American citizens held by Iran were released and a long-standing Iranian
claim for funds paid for undelivered military equipment from the Shah’s era was
settled—resulting in $1.7 billion in cash payments (euros, Swiss francs, and other
non-U.S. hard currencies) to Iran—$400 million for the original DOD monies
and $1.3 billion for an arbitrated amount of interest. Administration officials
asserted that the nuclear diplomacy provided an opportunity to resolve these
outstanding issues, but some Members of Congress criticized the simultaneity of
the financial settlement as paying “ransom” to Iran. Obama Administration
officials asserted that it was long assumed that the United States was liable for
the Iranian funds paid for the undelivered military equipment and that the amount
of interest agreed was likely less than what Iran might have been awarded by the
U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal. Iran subsequently jailed several other dual nationals
(see textbox below).
 Iran did not discontinue any of its support to allies and proxies in the region, its
challenges to U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, or its ballistic missile tests.
Iranian arms exports were banned by Resolution 2231 that endorsed the JCPOA,
and the Resolution called on Iran not to develop missiles capable of carrying a
nuclear payload. The Obama Administration termed the missile tests “defiant of”
or “inconsistent with” Resolution 2231.
 There was no expansion of diplomatic representation, such as the posting of U.S.
nationals to staff the U.S. interests section in Tehran, nor did then-Secretary of
State Kerry visit Iran. However, in January 2016, Secretary Kerry worked with
Foreign Minister Zarif to achieve the rapid release of 10 U.S. Navy personnel
who the IRGC took into custody when their two riverine crafts strayed into what
Iran considers its territorial waters.
 Iranian officials argued that new U.S. visa requirements in the FY2016
Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 114-113) would cause European
businessmen to hesitate to travel to Iran and thereby limit Iran’s economic
reintegration. Secretary Kerry wrote to Foreign Minister Zarif on December 19,
2015, that the United States would implement the provision so as to avoid
interfering with “legitimate business interests of Iran.”

40 Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 24, 2013.
41 Roger Cohen. “U.S. Embassy, Tehran.” New York Times, April 8, 2015.
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Trump Administration: JCPOA Exit and “Maximum Pressure”
The Trump Administration shifted U.S. policy sharply from that of its predecessor by abrogating
the JCPOA and applying “maximum pressure,” through U.S. sanctions on Iran’s economy, to: (1)
compel it to renegotiate the JCPOA to address the broad range of U.S. concerns and (2) deny Iran
the revenue to continue to develop its strategic capabilities or intervene throughout the region.
Some Administration statements also suggested an effort to create enough economic difficulties
to stoke unrest in Iran, possibly to the point where the regime collapsed.42 As U.S.-Iran tensions
that increased in mid-2019 turned to hostilities in late 2019 and early 2020, U.S. officials
articulated that deterring Iranian provocative actions, in part through a buildup of U.S. forces in
the region, was a component of U.S. policy as well.
 Citing Iran’s arming of the Houthis in Yemen, on February 1, 2017, then-
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn stated that Iran was “officially on
notice” about its regional behavior. In April 2017, the Administration announced
a six-month Iran policy review, arguing that the JCPOA “only delays [Iran’s]
goal of becoming a nuclear state” and had failed to limit Iran’s regional
 During his May 2017, visit to the region and first international trip after taking
office, President Trump told Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia that “Until the Iranian
regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work
together to isolate Iran….”
 On October 13, 2017, President Trump, citing the policy review, stated that he
would not certify Iranian JCPOA compliance (under the Iran Nuclear Agreement
Review Act, INARA, P.L. 114-17), and that the United States would only stay in
the accord if Congress and U.S. allies (1) address the expiration of JCPOA
nuclear restrictions, (2) curb Iran’s ballistic missile program, and (3) counter
Iran’s regional activities. The denial of certification triggered a 60-day period for
Congress to take legislative action under expedited procedures to reimpose those
sanctions that were lifted. Congress did not take action.
 On January 12, 2018, the President announced that he would not continue to
waive JCPOA-related Iran sanctions at the next expiration deadline (May 12)
unless the JCPOA’s weaknesses were addressed by Congress and the Europeans.
Withdrawal from the JCPOA and Subsequent Pressure Efforts
On May 8, 2018, following visits to the United States by the leaders of France and Germany
arguing for the United States to remain in the JCPOA, President Trump announced that the
United States would withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose all U.S. secondary sanctions by
November 4, 2018.43 The Administration then took additional steps to apply “maximum pressure”
on Iran’s economy and regime.
U.S. Demands Articulated. On May 21, 2018, in his first speech as Secretary of
State, Michael Pompeo articulated 12 requirements that Iran must meet in a
revised JCPOA and to achieve normalized relations with the United States. Most

42 Mike Pompeo Supporting Iranian Voices Address. Reagan Library and Foundation. July 22, 2018.
43 White House, Statement by the President on the JCPOA, May 8, 2018.
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of the requirements focused on cessation of Iranian support for its allies and
proxies, including in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen.44
President Trump Threatens Rouhani. On July 23, 2018, following threats by
Rouhani and other Iranian leaders to cut off the flow of oil through the Persian
Gulf if Iran’s oil exports are prevented by sanctions, President Trump posted the
following threat on Twitter: “To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER
Iran Action Group Created. On August 16, 2018, Secretary Pompeo announced
the creation of an “Iran Action Group” responsible for coordinating the State
Department’s Iran-related activities, headed by Brian Hook, the State Department
“Special Representative for Iran.” In September 2018, the group issued its first
“Outlaw Regime” report on Iran, referenced earlier, and an update was issued in
U.S.-Iran Treaty of Amity Abrogated. On October 3, 2018, the Administration
abrogated the 1955 U.S.-Iran “Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and
Consular Rights.” Iran’s legal representatives had cited the treaty to earn a
favorable October 2, 2018 International Court of Justice ruling that the United
States reverse some sanctions on Iran. The Administration argued that the treaty,
which provides for freedom of commerce between the two countries and
unfettered diplomatic exchange, has long been mooted by post-1979
developments in U.S.-Iran relations. The treaty also provides for compensation to
Iran for steps that would now constitute enforcement of U.S. sanctions on Iran,
such as seizure of Iranian assets in the United States. The abrogation of the treaty
did not affect the status of the interests sections in each others’ countries.
Discussions Held Through the Warsaw Process. Seeking to persuade U.S.
partners to adopt U.S. policy toward Iran, the Administration organized a
ministerial meeting in Warsaw, Poland, during February 13-14, 2019, focused
particularly on countering the threat posed by Iran. The meeting spawned follow-
up meetings of the “Warsaw Process,” focused on Gulf maritime security as well
as broader Middle East issues such as women’s rights in the region. The effort
produced some selected partner cooperation on some Iran-related security issues,
but the Warsaw Process did not cause a broad shift among partner countries to
supporting the U.S. policy of maximum pressure on Iran.45
IRGC Named an FTO. On April 8, 2019, the Administration designated the IRGC
as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), blaming it for involvement in multiple
past acts of Iran-backed terrorism and anti-U.S. actions.46
Oil Purchase Sanctions Exceptions Ended. On April 22, 2019, the Administration
announced it would no longer provide exceptions to countries that pledged to

44 Statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018.
45 See CRS In Focus IF11132, Coalition-Building Against Iran, by Kenneth Katzman.
46 See CRS Insight IN11093, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Named a Terrorist Organization, by Kenneth Katzman.
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reduce their purchases of Iranian oil under the FY2012 National Defense
Authorization Act (P.L. 112-81).47
U.S. Strike Kills IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani. In May 2019, U.S.-
Iran tensions escalated significantly and steadily, culminating in U.S.-Iran direct
military conflict—particularly following a September 14, 2019, attack, attributed
to Iran, on Saudi critical energy infrastructure. In the aftermath of the January 3,
2020, U.S. strike that killed IRGC-QF commander Qasem Soleimani and the
January 8, 2020, Iranian missile retaliation on an Iraqi base housing U.S. forces,
the Administration continued to impose sanctions on Iranian entities and
additional sectors of Iran’s economy. Administration officials deployed additional
forces and equipment to the region. Senior officials, including Secretary Pompeo,
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien,
explained the decision to strike Soleimani and the U.S. force buildup as efforts to
“restore deterrence” against further Iranian provocative actions.48 President
Trump also continued to express willingness to meet with Iranian leaders without
preconditions to negotiate a revised nuclear agreement as previously outlined.
U.S. Offers COVID-19 Aid. In February 2020, the Administration offered Iran
humanitarian assistance to help it deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Iran
publicly refused any U.S. aid.
U.S. Tries to Snap Back U.N. Sanctions. On August 20, 2020, Secretary Pompeo
delivered to the U.N. Security Council president a formal complaint that Iran has
breached the JCPOA and that all U.N. sanctions should snap back.49 Thirteen of
the 15 Security Council members stated, in writing, that the United States does
not have standing to implement the snapback because it no longer participates in
the JCPOA, and the Security Council presidency refused to advance the U.S.
sanctions snapback request. U.S. officials announced that, as of 8 PM on
September 19 (30 days after the U.S. complaint was filed),50 all U.N. sanctions
were back in effect. The U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Secretary General
stated that the U.S. snapback trigger was not supported by the Council as a
whole51 and would not be implemented. The ban is deemed by these organs to
have expired as scheduled on October 18, 2020. Trump Administration officials
stated that they would impose sanctions on any country or entity that sells arms
to Iran. In mid-February 2021, the Biden Administration, as part of its policy
shift discussed below, withdrew the assertion that U.N. sanctions had snapped
Biden Administration: Resumption of Nuclear Talks
During his campaign, President Joseph Biden articulated the view that “Maximum Pressure”
policy had not succeeded and that, if elected President, he would return to the Obama

47 See CRS Insight IN11108, Iran Oil Sanctions Exceptions Ended, by Kenneth Katzman.
48 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example. Hoover Institution,
January 13, 2020.
49 “Pompeo urges United Nations to restore sanctions against Iran.” PBS Newshour, August 20, 2020.
50 U.S. Department of State, “Briefing With Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams on
Developments in Iran and Venezuela,” September 16, 2020.
51 Joint statement by the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, September 20, 2020.
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Administration approach to Iran, including a resumption of U.S. participation in the JCPOA.52 He
stated, in his September 13, 2020 editorial cited above: “…I will offer Tehran a credible path back
to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would
rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work
to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of
concern... I will also take steps to make sure US sanctions do not hinder Iran's fight against
Covid-19…We will continue to push back against Iran's destabilizing activities, which threaten
our friends and partners in the region…We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran's
human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.”
Since taking office, the Biden Administration, represented by Iran envoy Rob Malley, has
conducted indirect talks with Iran and the other parties to the JCPOA in Vienna on a mutual U.S.
and Iranian return to full compliance with the JCPOA as it still exists. As of late July 2020,
Iranian and U.S. officials have reported substantial progress, but no agreement has been
announced to date. Some Members of Congress argue that any agreement to return to full
compliance with the JCPOA would require a new review by Congress under the Iran Nuclear
Agreement Review Act (INARA). Iran has also not agreed to follow-on talks on missile issues,
Iran’s support for regional armed factions, or other issues. The two countries reportedly are also
discussing an exchange of each other’s persons imprisoned on various charges in each country.53
It is not clear whether Ibrahim Raisi, after taking office on August 4, will alter Iran’s negotiation
positions in Vienna. At the same time, the Biden Administration has conducted at least two strikes
on Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq as well as in Syria, in response to attacks on U.S. forces
based in Iraq. The Biden Administration also has, to date, kept in place all U.S. sanctions that
existed when it took office and has not added any new Iran sanctions authorities. For further
discussion of Biden Administration policy and the issues involved in a possible U.S. return to the
JCPOA, see: CRS Report R46663, Possible U.S. Return to Iran Nuclear Agreement: Frequently
Asked Questions
, by Kenneth Katzman et al.
Detentions of U.S. Nationals and Dual Nationals
Iran does not recognize any dual nationality and detained dual nationals are not given help from foreign diplomats.
As of July 2021, Iran holds five U.S. citizens on national security charges but press reports indicate that the United
States and Iran might be negotiating hostage releases as part of broader negotiations about the nuclear issue.54
Recent Past Detentions and Releases

2007-11: Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari was imprisoned for several months in 2007 and Iranian-
American journalist Roxanna Saberi was imprisoned for five months in 2009. U.S. hikers Sara Shourd, Shane
Bauer, and Josh Fattal were detained in August 2009 after crossing into Iran from northern Iraq. Their 2010-
2011 releases were brokered by Oman.

September 2015: Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident and Lebanon national, was detained. Released June

January 16, 2016 JCPOA-related swap: Iran released former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati; Reverend Saeed
Abedini, a Christian convert of Iranian origin; Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian; Nosratol ah “Fred”
Khosravi-Roodsari, who remained in Iran after his release; and Matthew Trevithick. The United States
released 7 Iranian Americans/Iranians imprisoned in the United States on sanctions violations.

July 2016: Reza “Robin” Shahini was detained for crimes against the Islamic Republic. Released in March 2017.

52 Joseph Biden. “There's a smarter way to be tough on Iran.” CNN, September 13, 2020.
53 “After US denied deal, Iran says prisoner swap talks ongoing.” Associated Press, July 13, 2021.
54 Margaret Brennan, “Americans imprisoned in Iran could complicate U.S. re-entry into nuclear talks,” CBS News,
April 9, 2021.
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July 2016: Karan Vafadari, a U.S.-Iran national, was arrested, along with his wife, U.S. permanent resident
Afarin Niasari. The art gallery owners, who are Zoroastrians, were sentenced in January 2018 to 27 years in
jail for “engaging in corruption and depravity,” referring to allegedly serving alcohol at their home. They were
released on bail in 2018.

July 2017: Iranian judiciary officials announced that Xiyue Wang, a U.S. graduate student at Princeton
University who was researching Iranian history, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying for the United
States. Iran released him on December 7, 2019, simultaneous with a U.S. release of an Iranian scientist
(Massoud Soleimani) held on charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

July 2018: U.S. national and Navy veteran Michael White, was arrested in July 2018 and convicted for insulting
Iran’s supreme leader and posting on social media. White was released in June 2020.55
U.S. and U.S.-Iran Dual Nationals Still In Custody or Missing

2007: Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, went missing after a visit to Kish Island in 2007 to meet an Iranian
contact. In November 2019, hopes were raised for Levinson’s fate when the United Nations Working Group
on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said that Iran had acknowledged it has a court case “open” on
Levinson. However, in March 2020, U.S. officials reportedly told the family that they had substantial
indications that Levinson had passed away at some point in the prior few months.

November 2015: Iran arrested U.S.-Iran national Siamak Namazi, a business consultant, and it detained his
father, Baquer Namazi, in February 2016. In October 2016, they were sentenced to 10 years in prison.

January 2018: Mohrad Tahbaz, a U.S.-British-Iranian national, was arrested along with seven members of the
Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. His col eague, Canadian-Iranian national Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in
custody a few weeks after his arrest under unexplained circumstances.

April 2018: Emad Shargi, a U.S. citizen born in Iran, was arrested and detained in Tehran’s Evin prison, where
he stayed until release in December 2018. Shargi was rearrested in November 2020 and sentenced to a 10-
year prison sentence.
Non-U.S. Dual Nationals.

May 2011: British-Iranian dual national Kamal Foroughi was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 for
unspecified charges.

April 2016: British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Canadian-Iranian dual national Homa
Hoodfar were arrested; Hoodfar was released in September 2016. Ratcliffe was furloughed to house arrest in
Iran in March 2020 to avoid coronavirus infection.

April 2016: French-Iranian Nazak Afshar was sentenced to six years but released on bail. Abdolrasoul Dorri-
Esfahani, a former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team focused on financial issues, was jailed for spying
for British intelligence.

March 2018: British-Iran national Shahabeddin Mansouri-Kermani, a banker, was sentenced for spying.

May 2018: Iran-British national Mahan Abedin, who works for the British Council, and Iranian national Aras
Amiri, a student, were detained.

December 2018: Iran detained Iranian-Australian national Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi for “infiltrating Iranian

February 24, 2019: French businesswoman Nelly Erin-Cambervelle, who was arrested October 2018 for
“unauthorized entry,” was released.

July 15, 2019: France-Iran dual national Fariba Adelkhah, an anthropologist, and her col eague, French national
Roland Marchel, have been imprisoned since mid-2019. An Australian academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, was
arrested in late 2018 and was released in November 2020 in reported exchange for three Iranians held by
Thailand for an alleged bombing plot against Israeli diplomats there, which failed.
Source: Various press reports.

55 Matthew Lee and Eric Tucker, “Detained US Navy veteran freed by Iran as part of deal,” AP News, June 4, 2020.
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Policy Elements and Options
The following sections present various policies that have been implemented or considered by
U.S. administrations since Iran’s 1979 revolution.
Engagement and Improved Bilateral Relations
Successive Administrations have debated the degree to which to pursue engagement with Iran,
either for limited purposes or to achieve a dramatic change in U.S.-Iran relations. President
Trump publicly welcomed engagement with Iran’s leaders, and the Administration set extensive
conditions for a significant improvement in U.S.-Iran relations as articulated by Secretary of State
Pompeo, in his May 21, 2018, speech referenced above. Many of the stipulated conditions would
affect the core principles of Iran’s revolution and national security policies and are unlikely to be
met by Iran.
Several apparent overtures by both countries to negotiate directly during the Trump
Administration did not come to fruition. Throughout 2020, Rouhani and other Iranian officials
insisted that they would not negotiate with the Trump Administration unless it first eases
sanctions that were reimposed when the Administration exited the JCPOA.
As noted above, the Biden Administration has altered Iran policy to engage in indirect talks with
Iran on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.
Military Action
Successive Administrations have sought to support U.S. policy with a capability, and implicit or
explicit threat, to use military force against Iran. Prior to the JCPOA, supporters of military action
against Iran’s nuclear program argued that such action could set back Iran’s nuclear program
substantially.56 A U.S. ground invasion to remove Iran’s regime apparently has not been
considered at any time, reportedly even at the height of recent U.S.-Iran tensions.
The Obama Administration repeatedly stated that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran
from acquiring a nuclear weapon.57 However, the Obama Administration asserted that military
action would set back Iran’s nuclear advancement with far less certainty or duration than would a
nuclear agreement, and that Iranian retaliation could potentially escalate and expand throughout
the region, reduce Iran’s regional isolation, strengthen Iran’s regime domestically, and raise oil
prices.58 After the JCPOA was finalized, President Obama reiterated the availability of this option
should Iran violate the agreement,59 attack or prepare to attack U.S. allies, or interrupt the free
flow of oil or shipping in the Gulf or elsewhere.

56 Joby Warrick, “Iran: Underground Sites Vulnerable, Experts Say,” Washington Post, March 1, 2012. For an extended
discussion of U.S. air strike options on Iran, see Rogers, Paul, Iran: Consequences of a War, Oxford Research Group,
February 2006.
57 Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama to Iran and Israel: ‘As President of the United States, I Don’t Bluff’,” The Atlantic, March
2, 2012.
58 “Panetta: Military Strike Would Delay Iranian Nuclear Project by No More Than Two Years.” Haaretz, December 3,
59 Speech by President Obama at American University. August 7, 2015. President Obama Interview with CNN’s Fareed
Zakaria. Broadcast on August 9, 2015.
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In 2019 and 2020, President Trump undertook some military action against Iran in response to
potential Iranian actions, most notable of which was the January 3, 2020, strike that killed IRGC-
QF commander Soleimani. President Trump and his advisors, including in a January 2020 speech
at Stanford’s Hoover Institution by Secretary Pompeo, stated that one of the rationales for the
Soleimani strike was to restore deterrence against Iran that had apparently eroded from the U.S.
refusal to respond to Iran’s prior provocations.60 President Trump signaled, in part by not
responding to Iran’s retaliatory strike on Ayn Al Asad base in Iraq, that the Administration did not
want continuing conflict with Iran.61 The Administration also conducted several strikes against
Iran-backed militias in Iraq that attacked U.S. forces there and caused U.S. military deaths. In
November 2020, President Trump reportedly discussed military options with his advisers in
apparent response to reports that Iran was expanding its uranium enrichment activities.62 The
November 2020 assassination in Iran of Iran’s leading nuclear weapons scientist, Mohsen
Fakhrizadeh, allegedly by Israeli agents,63 might have represented an alternative to military action
against Iran’s program by Israel or the United States.
The Trump Administration also assembled a small coalition of Gulf and other allied states to
conduct Gulf maritime security operations to deter further Iranian attacks, inaugurated in
November 2019 as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC). In the context of U.S.-
Iran tensions, see CRS Report R45795, U.S.-Iran Conflict and Implications for U.S. Policy, by
Kenneth Katzman, Kathleen J. McInnis, and Clayton Thomas, cited above.
The Trump Administration publicly supported Israel’s frequent strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah
infrastructure there. The U.S. Navy conducted operations to interdict Iranian weapons shipments
to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.64
The Biden Administration has conducted at least two air strikes in Iraq and in Syria in response to
rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed Iraqi militias that attacked U.S forces and installations in
Iraq. Some Iraqi militias operate over the border in Syria, and their facilities were attacked on two
occasions. On one of these occasions (June 27, 2021), militia facilities in Iraq were attacked.
Iran Policy Objectives and Actions
Biden Administration Characterization of the Problem: Iran’s regime poses a broad threat to U.S.
interests. It:

conducts malign activities throughout the region by supporting pro-Iranian governments and armed factions,

supports terrorist groups and acts of international terrorism,

could continue advance toward a potential nuclear weapons capability unless there is a U.S. and Iranian
return to the terms of the JCPOA.

is developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. Resolution 2231, and increasingly
sophisticated drones,

60 Secretary of State Pompeo. “The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example.” Hoover Institution, January 13,
2020. Pompeo says killing of Suleimani is part of ‘bigger strategy’ to deter US foes. The Guardian, January 13, 2020.
61 Mark Landler, Maggie Haberman and Eric Schmitt, “Trump Tells Pentagon Chief he Does not Want War with Iran,”
New York Times, May 16, 2019.
62 “Trump Sought Options for Attacking Iran to Stop Its Growing Nuclear Program.” New York Times, November 16,
63 “US official says Israel was behind assassination of Iranian scientist.” CNN, December 2, 2020.
64 For detailed information on U.S. military activity in the region that is, in whole or in part, directed against Iran and
Iranian allies, see CRS Report R44017, Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies, by Kenneth Katzman, CRS Report
R45795, U.S.-Iran Conflict and Implications for U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman, Kathleen J. McInnis, and Clayton
Thomas, and CRS Report R46148, U.S. Killing of Qasem Soleimani: Frequently Asked Questions, coordinated by
Clayton Thomas. The latter CRS report covers issues of authorization for U.S. use of force and war powers issues.
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conducts il icit financial activities and cyberattacks,

represses the aspirations of Iran’s people’, and

detains U.S. nationals, U.S. dual-nationals, and dual-nationals of other countries.
Current U.S. Policy:

To offer Iran renewed JCPOA-stipulated U.S. sanctions relief in exchange for a return to ful Iranian compliance
with the JCPOA. All sanctions reimposed and newly imposed by the Trump Administration remain in place.
To continue to counter Iran’s regional malign activities and deter Iranian provocative action by:

maintaining a robust U.S. military presence in the region, including about 35,000 U.S. forces deployed in
Persian Gulf state military facilities such as Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the Naval Support Activity facility in
Bahrain, Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE, and Camp Arifjan in Kuwait;

support partner governments, such as that of Iraq, and their actions against Iran’s malign activities;

providing sophisticated rocket and missile defense to Israel; and

providing counterterrorism assistance to partner governments throughout the region.
Sources: Various statements by President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser
Jake Sul ivan, and other senior U.S. officials.
Economic Sanctions
The reimposition of all U.S. sanctions formed the cornerstone of the Trump Administration’s
maximum pressure policy. As noted, the Biden Administration has not added any new Iran
sanctions authorities, but it has not eased any sanctions. The Biden Administration rescinded the
designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), which was issued in the
final few days of the Trump Administration. The table below summarizes sanctions that have
been used against Iran.

Table 3. Summary of U.S. Sanctions Against Iran
Ban on U.S. Trade With and Investment in Iran. Executive Order 12959 (May 6, 1995) bans almost all U.S.
trade with and investment in Iran. P.L. 111-195 (Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment
Act, CISADA) codifies the trade ban.

Energy and other Sector Sanctions. The Iran Sanctions Act (P.L. 104-172), as amended, authorizes the
imposition of five out of a menu of 12 sanctions on firms that invest in Iran’s energy sector; sell gasoline to Iran;
sell energy equipment to Iran; transport oil from Iran; engage in an energy joint venture with Iran outside Iran; or
buy Iran’s sovereign debt. Another law—P.L. 112-239—sanctions most foreign dealings with Iran’s energy,
shipping, and shipbuilding sector, as well as the sale of certain items for Iranian industrial processes and the
transfer to Iran of precious metals (often a form of payment for oil or gas). Sanctions against other Iranian
industries and commodity exports were imposed in 2019 and 2020.

Sanctions On Iran’s Central Bank/Banking System. Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Act (P.L.
112-81) prevents foreign banks that do business with Iran’s Central Bank from opening U.S. accounts unless the
parent countries of the banks earn an exemption by “significantly reducing” their purchases of Iranian oil. Another
law, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (P.L. 111-195, CISADA) bans U.S.
accounts for banks that do business with sanctioned entities. The Department of the Treasury in November 2011
declared Iran’s financial system an entity of primary money laundering concern. In September 2019, the
Administration designated the Central Bank as a terrorism entity under Executive Order 13224.

Terrorism Sanctions. Iran’s designation by the Secretary of State as a “state sponsor of terrorism” triggers (1) a
ban on the provision of U.S. foreign assistance to Iran under Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act; (2) a ban
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on arms exports to Iran under Section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act (P.L. 95-92, as amended); (3) under
Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act (P.L. 96-72, as amended), a significant restriction—amended by other
laws to a “presumption of denial”—on U.S. exports to Iran of items that could have military applications; (4) under
Section 327 of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (P.L. 104-132), a requirement that U.S.
representatives to international financial institutions vote against international loans to terrorism list states.
Executive Order 13224 (September 23, 2001) authorizes a ban on U.S. transactions with entities determined to be
supporting international terrorism. The Order is not specific to Iran.

Sanctions Against Foreign Suppliers of Arms or Weapons of Mass Destruction Technology. Several laws
sanction supplies of arms or militarily useful technology to Iran. They include The Iran-Syria-North Korea
Nonproliferation Act (P.L. 106-178, March 14, 2000, as amended); The Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act (P.L.
102-484, October 23, 1992, as amended); Executive Order 13382 (June 28, 2005); and the Countering America’s
Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA, P.L. 115-44). Numerous Iranian and third country entities, including
the IRGC itself, have been designated under these authorities.

Sanctions Against Human Rights Abuses, Internet Monitoring, and Regional Activities. Various laws and
Executive Orders (including CISADA, E.O 13553) impose sanctions on named Iranian human rights abusers, on
firms that sell equipment Iran can use to monitor the internet usage of citizens or employ against demonstrators
and on Iranian persons or entities that suppress human rights in Syria or contribute to destabilizing Iraq.
Source: CRS. For extensive analysis of U.S. and international sanctions against Iran, see CRS Report RS20871,
Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman.
Regime Change
One recurring U.S. policy question has been whether the United States should support efforts to
overthrow Iran’s leadership. Khamene’i and other Iranian figures note that the United States
provided funding to anti-regime groups, mainly pro-monarchists, during the 1980s.65 Over the
past two decades, each successive Administration has stated that the United States does not seek
to change Iran’s regime, although all recent Administrations have criticized Iran’s regime for
human rights abuses and expressed support for democracy in Iran. Several Administrations,
including the Obama and Trump Administrations, have publicly supported Iranian demonstrators
agitating for more rights.66
Trump Administration officials repeatedly stated that U.S. policy was to change Iran’s behavior
and prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not to change its regime.67 However, some
statements by Trump Administration officials, in particular Secretary Pompeo’s speech to Iranian
Americans at the Reagan Library on July 22, 2018, suggested support for regime change. In his
speech on May 21, 2017, in Saudi Arabia, President Trump stated that his Administration had
hoped that Iran’s government would change to one that the Administration considers “just and
righteous.” In testimony before two congressional committees in June 2017, then-Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson said the Administration supported a “philosophy of regime change” for Iran
(Senate Appropriations Committee) and that the Administration would “work toward support of
those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government” (House
Foreign Affairs Committee). In his October 13, 2017, policy announcement on Iran, President
Trump stated that

65 CRS conversations with U.S. officials responsible for Iran policy. 1980-1990. After a period of suspension of such
assistance, in 1995, the Clinton Administration accepted a House-Senate conference agreement to include $18-$20
million in funding authority for covert operations against Iran in the FY1996 Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R.
1655), according to a Washington Post report of December 22, 1995. The Clinton Administration reportedly focused
the covert aid on changing the regime’s behavior, rather than its overthrow.
66 White House, “Remarks of President Obama Marking Nowruz,” March 20, 2011.
67 Pompeo speech at the Reagan Library, July 22, 2018, op. cit.
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we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own
people. The citizens of Iran have paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their
leaders. The Iranian people long to—and they just are longing, to reclaim their country’s
proud history, its culture, its civilization, its cooperation with its neighbors.
Subsequently, President Trump issued statements of support for the December 2017-January 2018
protests in Iran on Twitter and in other formats. In his May 8, 2018, announcement of a U.S.
withdrawal from the JCPOA, President Trump stated
Finally, I want to deliver a message to the long-suffering people of Iran. The people of
America stand with you.... But the future of Iran belongs to its people. They are the rightful
heirs to a rich culture and an ancient land, and they deserve a nation that does justice to
their dreams, honor to their history and glory to God.
In the Reagan Library speech mentioned above, Secretary Pompeo recited a litany of Iranian
regime human rights abuses and governmental corruption that called into question its legitimacy
and, in several passages and answers to questions, clearly expressed the hope that the Iranian
people will oust the current regime. The Secretary stated that “I have a message for the people of
Iran. The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you.”
Secretary Pompeo held a well-publicized meeting with diaspora and dissident Iranians at the State
Department on December 19, 2019. His remarks to the gathering returned to themes similar to
those expressed at the Reagan Library, particularly in criticism of the regime’s suppression of
dissent. The Secretary stated at the meeting that U.S. officials had received 36,000 pieces of
information in response to a solicitation for Iranians to report to the United States on examples of
regime human rights abuses.68
Yet, President Trump repeatedly ruled out a policy of regime change. During his May 2019 visit
to Japan, President Trump, stated
These are great people—has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership. We
are not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no
nuclear weapons.69
The Biden Administration has not indicated support for efforts to change Iran’s regime.
At times, some in Congress have at times advocated a regime change policy. In the 111th
Congress, one bill said that it should be U.S. policy to promote the overthrow of the regime (the
Iran Democratic Transition Act, S. 3008).
The Shah’s Son, Student Activists, and Other Prominent Dissidents
Some Iranians abroad, including in the United States, want to replace the regime with a constitutional monarchy
led by Reza Pahlavi, the U.S.-based son of the late former Shah and a U.S.-trained combat pilot. The Shah’s son,
born in 1960, appears periodically in broadcasts to Iran from Iranian exile-run stations in California, as well as in
other Iran-oriented media. Pahlavi has always retained some support from the older generations in Iran, but he has
tried to broaden his fol owing by denying he seeks to restore the monarchy. Since 2011, he has increasingly
worked with younger opposition figures, perhaps in part to respond to critics who assess him as relatively inactive
against the regime. Iranian leaders often blames the Shah’s son, as well as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of
Iran (see box below) for instigating unrest when demonstrations take place.
Student dissident groups composed of well-educated, generally pro-Westernized urban youth have been the
backbone of the Iranian opposition. The Office of Consolidation of Unity is the student group that led the 1999
riots but which later became control ed by regime loyalists. An offshoot, the Confederation of Iranian Students
(CIS), led by U.S.-based Amir Abbas Fakhravar, believes in regime replacement and in 2013 formed a “National

68 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Human Rights and the Iranian Regime. December 19, 2019.
69 Noah Bierman, “Trump Pushes Off War Talk on Iran, Says ‘Regime Change’ is not Goal,” Los Angeles Times, May
27, 2019.
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Iran Congress” that has drafted a U.S.-style, secular constitution for a future republic of Iran. Cofounder Arzhang
Davoodi has been in prison since 2002. A 2014 death sentence has not been implemented to date. Some of these
dissidents have used news channels on the Telegram messaging network, one of which was called Amadnews, to
agitate against the regime. In October 2019, the founder of Amadnews, Ruhol ah Zam, was lured from his base in
France to Najaf, Iraq, where he was captured by the IRGC-QF and brought to Iran. He has been sentenced to
Other dissidents, some in Iran, others in exile (including in the United States), include journalist Akbar Ganji, who
left Iran in 2006 after serving 6 years in prison for alleging high-level involvement in the 100 murders of Iranian
dissident intellectuals; former Culture Minister Ataol ah Mohajerani; U.S.-based Fatemah Haghighatjoo; and religion
scholar Abdolkarim Soroush.
Some well-known dissidents have been incarcerated periodically or continuously since 2010, including famed
blogger Hossein Derakshan. The elderly leader of the Iran Freedom Movement, Ibrahim Yazdi, was released from
prison in April 2011 after resigning as the movement’s leader. Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was released
from prison in September 2013, but has been jailed again since June 2018 for representing women who protested
against compulsory hijab. In 2019, she was sentenced to 33 years in prison. In May 2015, the regime arrested
Narges Mohammadi, a well-known activist against regime executions.
Sources: CRS periodic conversations with Iranian exiles, and various press.
Democracy Promotion and Internet Freedom Efforts
Successive Administrations and Congresses have sought to promote political evolution in Iran
through “democracy promotion” programs and sanctions on Iranian human rights abuses.
Legislation authorizing democracy promotion in Iran was enacted in the 109th Congress. The Iran
Freedom Support Act (P.L. 109-293, signed September 30, 2006) authorized funds (no specific
dollar amount) for Iran democracy promotion.70 Several laws and Executive Orders issued since
2010 are intended to promote internet freedom, and U.S.-Iran trade regulations were amended in
2011-12 to allow for the sale to Iranians of consumer electronics and software that help them
communicate. Then-Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman testified on October 14, 2011, that
some of the democracy promotion funding for Iran was used to train Iranians to use technologies
that circumvent regime censorship of the internet.
Many have argued that U.S. funding for such programs is counterproductive because the support
has caused Iran to use the support as a justification to accuse the civil society activists of
disloyalty. Some civil society activists have refused to participate in U.S.-funded programs,
fearing arrest. The Obama Administration altered Iran democracy promotion programs somewhat
toward working with Iranians inside Iran who are organized around apolitical issues such as
health, education, science, and the environment.71 The State Department, which often uses
appropriated funds to support democracy programs run by organizations based in the United
States and in Europe, refuses to name grantees for security reasons. Funds have been obligated
through the State Department bureaus of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and of Near
Eastern Affairs, in partnership with USAID (see Table 4 below). Some of the funds have also
been used for cultural exchanges, public diplomacy, and broadcasting to Iran. A further indication
of the sensitivity of specifying the use of the funds is that, since FY2010, funds have been
provided for Iran civil society/democracy promotion through the State Department’s Near East
Regional Democracy (NERD) account.
Iran asserts that funding democracy promotion represents a violation of the 1981 “Algiers
Accords” that settled the Iran hostage crisis and provide for noninterference in each other’s

70 This legislation was a modification of H.R. 282, which passed the House on April 26, 2006, by a vote of 397-21, and
S. 333, which was introduced in the Senate.
71 CRS conversation with U.S. officials of the “Iran Office” of the U.S. Consulate in Dubai, October 2009.
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internal affairs. The George W. Bush Administration asserted that open funding of Iranian
democracy activists was a stated effort to change regime behavior, not to overthrow the regime,
although some saw the Bush Administration’s efforts as a cover to achieve a regime change
Broadcasting/Public Diplomacy Issues
Another part of the democracy promotion effort has been the development of Iran-specific U.S.
broadcasting services to Iran. Radio Farda (“tomorrow,” in Farsi) began under Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in partnership with the Voice of America (VOA), in 2002. The
service was established as a successor to a smaller Iran broadcasting effort begun with an initial
$4 million from the FY1998 Commerce/State/Justice appropriation (P.L. 105-119). It was to be
called Radio Free Iran but was never formally given that name by RFE/RL. Based in Prague,
Radio Farda broadcasts 24 hours per day, and its budget is over $11 million per year. The service
is expanding into television as well, according to officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
No U.S. assistance has been provided to Iranian exile-run stations.72
VOA Persian Service/VOA365. The VOA established a Persian-language service to Iran in July
2003. It consists of radio broadcasting, television, and Internet. In 2019, it was revised as
VOA365, and is led by the VOA in partnership with RFE/RL Radio Farda. The service broadcasts
nine hours per day and, as of 2019, is ramping up to 11 hours per day of broadcasting. The service
broadcasts into Iran news as well as U.S. television programs (“soft programming”) licensed for
rebroadcast to Iran. The service has been criticized by Iranian exiles in the United States for
failing to forthrightly confront the regime’s messaging, although USAGM officials say such calls
would be ineffective and not necessarily consistent with the VOA’s mission. The costs for the
service are about $20 million per year.

72 The conference report on the FY2006 regular foreign aid appropriations stated the sense of Congress that such
support should be considered.
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Table 4. Iran Democracy Promotion Funding
Relevant Appropriations Language
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2004 (P.L. 108-199) provided $1.5 mil ion for
“educational, humanitarian and non-governmental organizations and individuals inside
Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran.”
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005 (P.L. 108-447) provided $3 mil ion from for
“educational, humanitarian and non-governmental organizations and individuals inside
Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran.” The
conference report (H.Rept. 108-792) stated: “The managers support the use of funds for
a conference to bring together Iranian dissidents and advocates of freedom and justice in
Iran to explore opportunities for furthering democracy in that country.”
The Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act,
2006 (P.L. 109-102) provided $6.5 mil ion for “programs and activities that support the
advancement of democracy in Iran and Syria.” The accompanying conference report
(H.Rept. 109-265) stated an expectation that at least $10 mil ion from the Democracy
Fund and from funds provided for the Middle East Partnership Initiative would be used
to support democracy programs in Iran.
The Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on
Terror, and Hurricane Recovery, 2006 (P.L. 109-234) provided $20 mil ion for
“programs and activities promoting democracy in Iran” which shall be administered by
the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and $36.1 mil ion for International Broadcasting
Operations to support programs to promote democracy in Iran. The conference report
(H.Rept. 109-494) specified $5 mil ion to expand public diplomacy information programs
relating to Iran and $5 mil ion for academic, professional and cultural exchanges with
The Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2007 (P.L. 110-5) maintained prior
year levels $6.55 mil ion for Iran (and Syria) to be administered through DRL provided
by FY2007 continuing resolution.

Table 4. Iran Democracy Promotion Funding
Relevant Appropriations Language
Section 693 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 (P.L. 110-161) made available
$60 mil ion for “programs to promote democracy, the rule of law, and governance in
The conference report included an additional $2 mil ion to counter censorship efforts in
Iran and China, and $8 mil ion from the State Department’s Human Rights and
Democracy Fund.
The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 (P.L. 111-8) did not carry forward Sec. 693.
‘ Democracy, Rule of Law and Governance in Iran enacted in the fiscal year 2008 Act.
The conference report (H.Rept. 111-366) accompanying the Consolidated
Appropriations Act, 2010 (P.L. 111-117) provides $733,788,000 for “the International
Broadcasting Operations (IBO) activities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG),
including increased funding to support transmission and Internet enhancements to reach
audiences in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.” The conference report also provides a total
of $30,000,000 in ESF, DF, and MEPI funding for “programs and activities to expand
unmonitored, uncensored access to the Internet for large numbers of users living in
closed societies that have acutely hostile Internet environments, including in the People’s
Republic of China and Iran.”
The Department of Defense and Ful -Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (P.L.
112-10) did not contain any provisions related to democracy promotion in Iran.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (P.L. 112-74) did not contain any provisions
related to democracy promotion in Iran.
The Consolidated and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013 (P.L. 113-6) did not contain
any provisions related to democracy promotion in Iran.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (P.L. 113-76) did not contain any provisions
related to democracy promotion in Iran, however the accompanying joint explanatory
statement directs the Secretary of State to make available funds for the promotion of
democracy and human rights in Iran, including for the activities described in section 1243
of P.L. 112-239)

Table 4. Iran Democracy Promotion Funding
Relevant Appropriations Language
Section 7078 (b) of Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (P.L.
113-235) makes funds available to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,
Department of State for “programs to implement the comprehensive strategy to
promote Internet freedom and access to information in Iran, as required by section 414
of Public Law 112–158.”
Section 7041 (b) of Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 (P.L. 114-113) makes
available funds under Diplomatic and Consular Programs, ESF, and NADR “for
democracy programs for Iran, to be administered by the Assistant Secretary for Near
Eastern Affairs, Department of State, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary for
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Department of State.” The Act also makes funds
available for programs to implement the strategy to promote Internet freedom and
access to information in Iran.
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (P.L. 115-31) maintains prior year language
relating to democracy programs for Iran and implementation of the Iranian internet
freedom strategy.
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018P.L. 115-141) maintains prior year language
relating to democracy programs for Iran and implementation of the Iranian internet
freedom strategy.
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 (P.L. 116-6) maintains prior year language
relating to democracy programs for Iran and implementation of the Iranian internet
freedom strategy.
Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 (P.L. 116-94) and H.Rept. 116-78
maintain prior year language relating to democracy programs for Iran and implementing
the Iran Internet freedom strategy.
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (P.L. 116-260) and H.Rept. 116-444 maintain
prior year language relating to democracy programs for Iran and implementation of the
Iranian internet freedom strategy.
Source: Obligations data compiled using USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer (comprehensive data available through FY2019).
Notes: Prepared by Emily M. Morgenstern, Analyst in Foreign Assistance and Foreign Policy, and Sarah R, Col ins, Research Assistant.


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

Ethnicity- and Sect-Based Armed Groups
Sunni Armed Opposition: Jundullah/Jaysh al-Adl
Jundullah is composed of Sunni Muslims primarily from the Baluchistan region bordering Pakistan. The region is
inhabited by members of the Baluch minority and is far less developed than other parts of Iran. Jundullah has
conducted several attacks on Iranian security and civilian officials, including a May 2009 bombing of a mosque in
Zahedan and the October 2009 kil ing of five IRGC commanders in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. The regime
claimed a victory against the group in February 2010 with the capture of its top leader, Abdolmalek Rigi. The
regime executed him in June 2010, but the group retaliated in July 2010 with a Zahedan bombing that kil ed 28
persons, including some IRGC personnel. The group was responsible for a December 15, 2010, bombing at a
mosque in Chahbahar that kil ed 38. On the grounds that Jundullah has attacked civilians in the course of violent
attacks in Iran, the State Department formally named it an FTO on November 4, 2010. The group changes its
name to Jaysh al-Adl in 2012, however the 2010 FTO designation applies to that name as well.
Kurdish Armed Groups
One armed Iranian Kurdish group operating out of Iraq is the Free Life Party, known by its acronym PJAK. Its
leader is believed to be Abdul Rahman Hajji Ahmadi, born in 1941, who is a citizen of Germany and lives in that
country. Many PJAK fighters reportedly are women. PJAK was designated by the Department of the Treasury in
early February 2009 as a terrorism supporting entity under Executive Order 13224, although the designation
statement indicated the decision was based mainly on PJAK’s association with the Turkish Kurdish opposition
group Kongra Gel, also known as the PKK. Five Kurds executed by Iran’s regime in May 2010 were alleged
members of PJAK.
In July 2016, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) announced a resumption of “armed struggle” against
the regime, which had been suspended for 25 years, fol owing clashes with the IRGC that left several dead on both
sides. KDP-I fighters involved in the clashes reportedly had entered Iran from Kurdish-control ed territory in Iraq.
The Kurds who were recruited by the Islamic State for the June 2017 attacks in Tehran, discussed above, did not
have clear affiliations with the established Kurdish armed groups discussed above. In late September 2018, Iran
fired ballistic missiles at a base of the KDP-I in northern Iraq.
Arab Oppositionists/Ahwazi Arabs
Another militant group, the Ahwazi Arabs, operates in the largely Arab-inhabited areas of southwest Iran. Relatively
inactive over the past few years, and the regime continues to execute captured members of the organization. The
group purportedly was responsible for a September 22, 2018, attack on a military parade in the city of Ahwaz,
which kil ed 25 persons, mostly IRGC personnel. Iran accused not only the Ahwazi Arabs but also Saudi Arabia,
the Islamic State organization, and the United States for supporting that attack. On October 1, 2018, Iran
retaliated for the assault by launching ballistic missiles at suspected Islamic State positions inside Syria.
Sources: State Dept. Terrorist Designations of Balochistan Liberation Army and Husain Ali Hazzima and
Amendments to the Terrorist Designations of Jundallah, July 2, 2019. Various press.
State Department Public Diplomacy Efforts
The State Department has sought outreach to the Iranian population. In May 2003, the State
Department added a Persian-language website to its list of foreign-language websites. In February
2011, the State Department began Persian-language Twitter feeds. Since 2006, the State
Department has added staff to the several U.S. diplomatic missions in the countries around Iran
with Persian-speaking diplomats. The Iran unit at the U.S. Consulate in Dubai has been enlarged
significantly into a “regional presence” office, and “Iran-watcher” positions have been added over
the past ten years to U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baku, Azerbaijan; Istanbul, Turkey; Frankfurt,
Germany; London; and Ashkabad, Turkmenistan, all of which have large expatriate Iranian
populations and/or proximity to Iran.73

73 Farah Stockman, “‘Long Struggle’ With Iran Seen Ahead,” Boston Globe, March 9, 2006.
Congressional Research Service


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

People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK, PMOI)/National Council of
Resistance of Iran (NCRI)
A wel -known opposition group is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), also known as the
Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK). It is the main organization within the National Council of Resistance of
Iran (NCRI), which claims to be a parliament-in-exile. The PMOI was formed in 1965 by university students
opposed to the Shah of Iran. It has been widely characterized as blending several left-leaning ideologies with Islam,
but it advocates universal suffrage, a non-nuclear Iran, and abolition of use Sharia law in Iran. The group allied with
pro-Khomeini forces during the Islamic revolution, but was forced into exile after unsuccessful y rising up against
the Khomeini regime in mid-1981. Tens of thousands of its members have since been executed, including those
massacred in prison in 1988. The PMOI was led until 1989 by spouses Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, the former of
which has been NCRI President-elect since 1992. Mrs. Rajavi is based in France and the whereabouts of Massoud
Rajavi are unknown. The PMOI elects a Secretary-General every two years.

The State Department designated the PMOI as an FTO in October 1997, during a time when the Clinton
Administration was trying to engage Iran’s President Khatemi. In August 2003, the Department of the Treasury
ordered the NCRI’s offices in the United States closed. The FTO designation was based on State Department
assertion, denied by the group, that the members of the PMOI were responsible for the kil ing of seven American
military personnel and contract advisers to the former Shah during 1973-1976; and bombings at U.S. government
and U.S. corporate offices in Tehran to protest the 1972 visits to Iran of President Nixon and Secretary of State
Kissinger. The reports also listed as terrorism several attacks by the group against regime targets (including 1981
bombings that kil ed high-ranking officials), attacks on Iranian government facilities, and attacks on Iranian security
officials. The group has denied involvement in the attacks. The group’s alliance with Iraq‘s Saddam Hussein
contributed to the designation, even though Saddam was a U.S. ally when the group moved to Iraq in 1987.

In 2012, fol owing a court challenge by the group, a U.S. Appeals Court gave the State Department until October
1, 2012, to decide on the FTO designation, without prescribing an outcome. On September 28, 2012, maintaining
there had not been confirmed acts of PMOI terrorism for more than a decade and that it had cooperated on the
Camp Ashraf issue (below), the group was removed from the FTO list and was “de-listed” from its designation as
a terrorist group under Executive Order 13224. The group has also been credited for exposing Iranian nuclear
sites and other proliferation-related locations and actions. The NCRI reopened its offices in Washington, DC, in
April 2013. The regime blamed the group for instigating some of the protests that took place in November 2019.
Whereas the extent of the PMOI’s fol owing in Iran is unclear, regime officials often blame the PMOI for stoking
unrest in Iran, suggesting regime nervousness about the group’s support level within Iran and degree of
organization. In June 2018, a plot by an Iranian diplomat in Vienna, Austria to bomb a PMOI rally in France was
foiled by European security organizations,

Camp Ashraf Issue
During Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 2003), U.S. forces in Iraq required 3,400 PMOI elements in Iraq to
consolidated at Camp Ashraf, near the border with Iran, and to place its weaponry in storage, guarded by U.S. and
Iraqi personnel. In July 2004, the United States granted the Ashraf detainees “protected persons” status under the
4th Geneva Convention, although that designation lapsed when Iraq resumed ful sovereignty in June 2004. The
Iraqi government’s pledges to adhere to all international obligations with respect to the PMOI in Iraq came into
question on several occasions when pro-Iranian militias and Iraqi forces used force against the PMOI residents of
Camp Ashraf and, after 2012, against their new location at Camp Liberty, near Baghdad’s main airport. The
FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-92) called for “prompt and appropriate steps” to promote
the protection of camp residents. In September 2016, the last remaining residents of Camp Liberty were resettled
in Albania and there are no more PMOI activists living openly in Iraq. Fearing that the PMOI might organize
protests there, regime agents attempted to bomb the group’s Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebration in March
2018. The plot was foiled by Albanian law enforcement and the Albanian government expelled Iran’s Ambassador.
Sources: Various press reports and CRS conversations with NCR-I representatives and experts.

Congressional Research Service


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

Figure 1. Structure of the Iranian Government

Source: CRS.
Congressional Research Service


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

Figure 2. Map of Iran

Source: Map boundaries from Wikimedia Commons, 2007. Graphic: CRS.

Author Information

Kenneth Katzman

Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The author wishes to acknowledge the research contribution of Sarah Collins, Research Assistant, Middle
East and Africa Section, in the preparation of this report.
Congressional Research Service


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

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