Iran: Politics, Human Rights, and U.S. Policy

August 22, 2017

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile


Kenneth Katzman

Author's Title: 

Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs


Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the United States and Iran have been at odds politically and diplomatically over the perceived threat posed by Iran to a broad range of U.S. interests. U.S. officials also express a broad range of concerns about Iran’s human rights abuses, including its repeated detentions of U.S.-Iran dual nationals. During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. officials identified Iran’s support for militant Middle East groups as the primary threat posed by Iran to U.S. interests and allies. Iran’s nuclear program took precedence in U.S. policy after 2002 as the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon increased. Beginning in 2010, the United States orchestrated broad international economic pressure on Iran to persuade it to agree to strict limits on the program—pressure that contributed to the June 2013 election of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran and the eventual negotiation of a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA). The JCPOA, which began formal implementation on January 16, 2016, exchanged broad sanctions relief for nuclear program limits intended to ensure that Iran would require at least a year to produce a nuclear weapon after a decision to do so.

President Obama asserted that the implementation of the JCPOA presented an opportunity to construct a new and more positive U.S. relationship with Iran. However, Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles; maintained support for regional movements such as Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Houthi rebels in Yemen; arrested additional U.S.-Iran dual nationals; and conducted high speed intercepts of U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. The Trump Administration has characterized Iran as an adversary of the United States and stated a commitment to countering Iran’s regional influence—although without taking steps that would conflict with U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. The Administration has not articulated a hope or intent to develop an improved relationship with Iran.

U.S. officials have consistently criticized Iran’s clerical regime and its human rights record. Domestically, the JCPOA and sanctions relief have had broad support, but many Iranians say they also want greater freedoms of expression and assembly that Rouhani has not delivered. Hardliners continue to control the state institutions that curb dissent and free expression. Recent international criticism of Iran’s human rights record has centered particularly on increases in the pace of executions. Still, Rouhani’s ongoing public support was demonstrated by his clear first-round reelection victory on May 19, 2017. Rouhani garnered 57% of the vote to defeat Ibrahim Raisi, an ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, who was the only major hardline candidate still in the race on election day. Raisi received about 38% of the vote, and the few minor candidates who remained in the race until election day, as well as invalid ballots, constituted the remainder. Reformist and moderate candidates swept municipal council elections in all the major cities, including Tehran. Rouhani’s new cabinet nominations appeared to reflect a continued commitment to pragmatic policies and global engagement, while maintaining core domestic and national security policies. The United States has supported programs to promote civil society in Iran, but successive U.S. Administrations, including the Trump Administration, have stopped short of adopting policies that specifically seek to overthrow Iran’s regime.


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