Q&A: Former Key Democrat Seeks New Iran Sanctions if Talks-Extension Terms Too Lax

Former House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Representative Howard Berman, as seen in July 2011 during a bill mark-up. Now in the private sector, the former California Democrat is urging that Congress consider further sanctions against Iran as a means of achieving a satisfactory nuclear deal.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
July 18, 2014, 10:54 a.m.

Former U.S. Rep­res­ent­at­ive Howard Ber­man (D-Cal­if.) said in a Thursday in­ter­view that he sup­ports the idea of al­low­ing more time for Ir­an’s high-level talks with world powers on its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, but also hopes Con­gress would im­pose new sanc­tions against Tehran if the terms for such an ex­ten­sion are overly per­missive.

If, un­der drawn-out talks that oth­er­wise are set to end on Sunday, “we’re try­ing to provide ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions re­lief; if [Ir­an is] not ob­lig­ated to freeze their pro­gram; if there’s something in the in­spec­tion pro­cess that’s not let­ting us know what’s go­ing on at [key nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies] Natanz and For­dow and Arak — then we should be im­pos­ing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions,” said Ber­man, who un­til last year served as rank­ing mem­ber of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

On the oth­er hand, “if we get a short-term ex­ten­sion that doesn’t provide for this sanc­tions re­lief, and that keeps their pro­gram re­l­at­ively frozen as it is now, I’d let the ne­go­ti­ations “¦ play out for a little longer,” he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

Ber­man in 2012 lost a gen­er­al elec­tion bid to fel­low Demo­crat­ic Rep­res­ent­at­ive Brad Sher­man fol­low­ing Cali­for­nia re­dis­trict­ing. Rep­res­ent­ing about half of the San Fernando Val­ley in Los Angeles County, Ber­man chaired the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee from 2008 to 2011, when Demo­crats led the cham­ber.

The former law­maker said he thought a three-month-or-so ex­ten­sion bey­ond Ju­ly 20 for the in­ter­im agree­ment be­ing floated by Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials seems about right. That tim­ing could al­low any per­man­ent deal that is achieved to be ap­proved by a lame-duck Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate be­fore the end of the year, after which the up­per cham­ber might shift in­to Re­pub­lic­an con­trol.

More im­port­antly, though, Ber­man said, a re­l­at­ively brief ex­ten­sion for the talks — short of a six-month string-out al­lowed un­der the tem­por­ary deal — could en­sure that pres­sure re­mains on Tehran to sat­is­fy the six world powers’ most ser­i­ous con­cerns about pre­vent­ing Ir­an from ob­tain­ing a ca­pa­city to build a nuc­le­ar weapon.

Ir­an in­sists that its nuc­le­ar ef­forts are solely for peace­ful en­ergy, re­search and med­ic­al pur­poses. But there have been wide­spread sus­pi­cions for years that Tehran’s nuc­le­ar fuel­mak­ing and oth­er activ­it­ies could ul­ti­mately give the na­tion an atom­ic bomb ca­pa­city.

Pres­id­ent Obama on Wed­nes­day said Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s talks with his Ir­a­ni­an coun­ter­part this past week have achieved “a cred­ible way for­ward,” and in­dic­ated that he was con­sult­ing with U.S. law­makers about seek­ing an ex­ten­sion. “We have more work to do,” Obama told re­port­ers.

Mean­time, Kerry on Thursday said even he would sup­port ad­di­tion­al eco­nom­ic pen­al­ties against the Per­sian Gulf na­tion if a per­man­ent agree­ment is not achieved with­in a yet-to-be spe­cified time peri­od.

However, Ber­man — now a seni­or ad­viser at Cov­ing­ton & Burl­ing LLP in Wash­ing­ton — ap­peared to go fur­ther, sug­gest­ing that Con­gress might act in the near term to en­sure that Ir­an is not al­lowed to make eco­nom­ic or nuc­le­ar gains by drag­ging out the dur­a­tion of the in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­ations.

A num­ber of is­sues con­tin­ue to stand in the way of seal­ing a fi­nal deal, among them the length of a per­man­ent agree­ment, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports. Ir­an would like to see its nuc­le­ar activ­it­ies con­strained no longer than three to sev­en years, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times. However, U.S. of­fi­cials ap­pear to be hold­ing out for an agree­ment that lasts at least a dec­ade.

At the same time, Ir­an has res­isted calls by the so-called P-5+1 in­ter­locutors — China, France, Ger­many, Rus­sia, the United King­dom and United States — to lengthen its so-called “break­out cap­ab­il­ity,” in which it could quickly ramp up urani­um en­rich­ment if it de­cided to build a nuc­le­ar weapon.

Ir­a­ni­an For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif this week told the Times he was pro­pos­ing in the closed-door ne­go­ti­ations tech­nic­al meas­ures Ir­an could im­ple­ment that would lengthen its break­out ca­pa­city to more than one year, which Kerry has laid out as the shortest ac­cept­able time peri­od.

However, Wash­ing­ton has re­mained skep­tic­al that the cur­rent Ir­a­ni­an po­s­i­tion would al­low a year’s no­tice of break­out.

And some U.S. law­makers are seek­ing yet more dra­coni­an con­straints on the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar ef­fort that could per­man­ently pre­clude a mil­it­ary nuc­le­ar ca­pa­city, be­fore giv­ing their bless­ing to re­mov­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions.

For his part, Za­rif has said Ir­an could not ac­cept per­man­ent lim­its and, in fact, that Tehran in­tends to con­tin­ue en­rich­ing urani­um at low levels al­lowed un­der the in­ter­im deal.

Ed­ited ex­cerpts of the Ju­ly 17 tele­phone in­ter­view with Ber­man fol­low:

GSN: You have been meet­ing reg­u­larly with Ir­an ex­perts and former ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to dis­cuss the on­go­ing nuc­le­ar talks. What’s the latest?

Ber­man: There’s not go­ing to be an agree­ment that elim­in­ates Ir­an’s en­rich­ment cap­ab­il­ity, I think it’s fair to say. We’ve sort of known that since the in­ter­im agree­ment went in­to ef­fect.

But I think there’s still a very strong view that there should be no ad­di­tion­al re­lief for Ir­an.

GSN: Do you mean sanc­tions re­lief?

Ber­man: Yes. And con­tin­ued com­pli­ance with the pro­vi­sions of the tem­por­ary agree­ment dur­ing whatever in­ter­im peri­od the ne­go­ti­ations con­tin­ue for.

GSN: Do you think Ir­an could ac­cept that there would not be ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions re­lief go­ing for­ward, un­der a ne­go­ti­ations ex­ten­sion?

Ber­man: That’s not clear to me. But if there was go­ing to be ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions re­lief, then at least my ex­pect­a­tion would be then there has to be much fur­ther steps by Ir­an to roll back things it’s already done.

GSN: Is that a view the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is also in sync with?

Ber­man: I don’t know. “¦ Un­der the cur­rent scen­ario, it is to dis­mantle their en­tire nuc­le­ar in­fra­struc­ture. If they want nuc­le­ar en­ergy, let them do what the UAE [United Ar­ab Emir­ates] does [in terms of no do­mest­ic nuc­le­ar fuel­mak­ing].

And, in ad­di­tion, com­ply with all the [In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency] res­ol­u­tions and in­spec­tions and Ad­di­tion­al Pro­to­cols and everything else. But that’s not go­ing to hap­pen.

It’s quite clear that there will be — that a fi­nal agree­ment will al­low some level of en­rich­ment to con­tin­ue to take place — if there is a fi­nal agree­ment — in Ir­an. But wheth­er, in fact, that can be said to have elim­in­ated their cap­ab­il­ity to have a nuc­le­ar weapon will de­pend on what the con­straints and lim­it­a­tions are on that pro­gram.

GSN: The Ir­a­ni­an for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif, told the New York Times in a Monday in­ter­view that Ir­an was pro­pos­ing to freeze the num­ber of cent­ri­fuges at its cur­rent level of roughly 22,000 as part of the nuc­le­ar deal with the West. Few­er than half of those are cur­rently op­er­at­ing.

In ex­change, the Ir­a­ni­ans are of­fer­ing a num­ber of new safe­guards, in­clud­ing con­vert­ing most of their nuc­le­ar fuel in­to a form that is not bomb-us­able, and stop­ping con­struc­tion of a fa­cil­ity that would be re­quired for con­ver­sion in­to weapon-grade fuel. What’s your re­ac­tion to those fa­cets of the Ir­a­ni­an of­fer?

Ber­man: They have already taken their 20 per­cent urani­um and turned [that] in dif­fer­ent ways in­to [forms that] can­not im­me­di­ately be used for go­ing to [bomb-grade] 90 per­cent en­riched urani­um. “¦

But I’m told that “¦ they can con­vert some of that back in­to the urani­um that could be en­riched to a high­er level. It takes time and [ad­di­tion­al steps, but] it isn’t like they shipped it out or have some­how done something with it which means that could nev­er be part of their stock­pile.

So you’ve got a lot of very tech­nic­al and com­plic­ated ques­tions. But one of the cent­ral ques­tions is: How many cent­ri­fuges will be part of whatever pro­gram they have, and what type of cent­ri­fuges?

GSN: Do you have a sense from the ad­min­is­tra­tion as to what num­ber they could ac­cept?

Ber­man: My in­form­a­tion is so in­dir­ect here that I’m cau­tious about say­ing. But my sense is “¦ it was a good pro­pos­al. It was a very low num­ber.

GSN: Is it your im­pres­sion this is not just a U.S. ne­go­ti­at­ing po­s­i­tion, but rather that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is hold­ing out for a low num­ber?

Ber­man: Well, we don’t know. Today yes, [but] who knows? “¦ To be hon­est with you, I’m not sure they’ve even really briefed the Con­gress on what they’ve pro­posed.

“¦

GSN: What kind of pre­ced­ent do you think it would set else­where in the world if Ir­an is al­lowed to con­tin­ue en­rich­ment at all, giv­en wide­spread con­cerns about a mil­it­ary di­men­sion to at least its past ef­forts? Go­ing for­ward, is that a risk to U.S. ob­ject­ives in pre­vent­ing nuc­le­ar-arms pro­lif­er­a­tion around the globe?

Ber­man: Any deal which al­lows Ir­an to con­tin­ue to have any ca­pa­city to en­rich will then be used by oth­er coun­tries that want to have a nuc­le­ar-en­ergy pro­gram and en­rich their own urani­um. “¦

But the fact is, even if it does have neg­at­ive ef­fects on that [glob­al non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ob­ject­ive], if it gives us some good as­sur­ance that for a long peri­od of time, we don’t have to worry about Ir­an hav­ing nuc­le­ar weapons — or if we re­main vi­gil­ant and do everything we’re sup­posed to do, we don’t have to worry about Ir­an hav­ing nuc­le­ar weapons. That’s a huge gain.

GSN: Do you think the United States and its part­ners should agree to ex­tend the ne­go­ti­ation time frame for talks in or­der to reach a deal? And do you have any thoughts about the op­tim­al length of ex­ten­sion, from a polit­ic­al per­spect­ive? The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­par­ently is hop­ing it wouldn’t go past Oc­to­ber, so that a lame-duck Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate could ap­prove an agree­ment be­fore po­ten­tially hav­ing to hand over power to Re­pub­lic­ans in Janu­ary.

Ber­man: Well, I think there are many reas­ons to have a short­er ex­ten­sion, rather than a longer ex­ten­sion. And that’s just one of them.

I’m not even sure that’s the ma­jor one. And that is I don’t think we should be pay­ing for that ex­ten­sion with ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions re­lief. And I think it’s very crit­ic­al that Ir­an con­tin­ue to — and they have — com­ply with all the com­mit­ments they made in the tem­por­ary agree­ment. “¦

I think the right pri­or­ity here is to get a good agree­ment that lets us think that we have done something mean­ing­ful to stop Ir­an from get­ting a nuc­le­ar-weapon cap­ab­il­ity.

And if we’re not provid­ing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions re­lief — and thereby weak­en­ing the de­terrent that has brought them to the table — and they have truly frozen their pro­gram along the lines of the com­mit­ment they made in Decem­ber, go­ing in­to ef­fect in Janu­ary — with those two clear stip­u­la­tions, yes, I could sup­port that kind of a short­er ex­ten­sion. “¦

GSN: What kind of Ir­a­ni­an break­out time es­tim­ate do you feel com­fort­able with? If some es­tim­ates are ac­cur­ate that they freeze their cur­rent pro­gram today, per­haps it’s months or a year in which they could at­tain a nuc­le­ar-bomb ma­ter­i­al cap­ab­il­ity.

Ber­man: I’m un­com­fort­able with a break-out cap­ab­il­ity that’s that short.

GSN: “That short” be­ing what Ir­an is talk­ing about [in terms of the en­rich­ment ca­pa­city they want to re­tain go­ing for­ward]?

Ber­man: Yes. I’m not com­fort­able with that. “¦

GSN: Do you have in mind an ac­cept­able peri­od of time for po­ten­tial Ir­a­ni­an break­out, in terms of what the fi­nal agree­ment might re­flect?

Ber­man: You talked about 10 months or a year. Yeah, I think we want a longer break­out time than that. I think we should want a longer break­out time than that. “¦

They could have noth­ing and in 10 years, if they star­ted to get a nuc­le­ar weapon, they might be able to get it, right? They could buy it — who knows what they could do. “¦

To me, break­out means [Ir­an say­ing] we have an agree­ment, we have de­cided to hell with that agree­ment, not­with­stand­ing our ob­lig­a­tions to that agree­ment, we are go­ing to vi­ol­ate it. And we are go­ing to go ahead and build a nuc­le­ar weapon; we are go­ing to en­rich urani­um to nuc­le­ar-weapons grade cap­ab­il­ity. “¦

GSN: A num­ber of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­perts worry that even if a deal is struck, the U.N. nuc­le­ar watch­dog — the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency — is just not a strong enough in­sti­tu­tion to en­sure that Ir­an does not build an­oth­er cov­ert fa­cil­ity at which nuc­le­ar fuel can be made secretly. Do you share that con­cern and how is it best dealt with, even in the con­text of hav­ing struck an agree­ment?

Ber­man: Well, if we can’t cre­ate an in­spec­tion and veri­fic­a­tion sys­tem that is so in­trus­ive that we can have a very high-like­li­hood prob­ab­il­ity of know­ing wheth­er something cov­ert is go­ing on — and you take that plus the break­out time and feel re­l­at­ively as­sured that the agree­ment has achieved its goal — why are we even at the table?

“¦

They could dis­mantle everything that we know about, and cov­ertly be build­ing an en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity, a heavy-wa­ter re­act­or and blah blah blah “¦ And design­ing and build­ing a war­head and all these things.

And if noth­ing can stop them from do­ing this, no level of in­spec­tion or veri­fic­a­tion or all this oth­er stuff, why are we at the table?

GSN: But you do think we should be at the table?

Ber­man: Not in­def­in­itely. And I think we should be talk­ing about what ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions we might im­pose if these talks break off.

GSN: Look­ing at Cap­it­ol Hill right now — where there is now new bi­par­tis­an talk about sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion — I’m curi­ous what meas­ures you think might get through both the Sen­ate and the House, and with what tim­ing?

Ber­man: Well, I think it de­pends. You tell me what the con­di­tions are for an ex­ten­sion, and how tem­por­ary it is. In oth­er words, it’s all very hy­po­thet­ic­al.

If we’re try­ing to provide ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions re­lief, if they’re [in Ir­an] not ob­lig­ated to freeze their pro­gram, if there’s something in the in­spec­tion pro­cess that’s not let­ting us know what’s go­ing on at [key nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies] Natanz and For­dow and Arak, then we should be im­pos­ing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions.

If we get a short-term ex­ten­sion that doesn’t provide for this sanc­tions re­lief, and that keeps their pro­gram re­l­at­ively frozen as it is now, I’d let the ne­go­ti­ations “¦ play out for a little longer.

GSN: So when you say “a little longer,” do you agree with that three-month time frame cur­rently be­ing dis­cussed?

Ber­man: Yeah. “¦ [And on the pos­sib­il­ity of sanc­tions], I’m talk­ing about the in­ter­na­tion­al sanc­tions: Hold­ing the P-5+1 and the oth­er coun­tries to­geth­er, to main­tain the sanc­tions that we now have. “¦

GSN: You mean not just im­pos­ing U.S. sanc­tions uni­lat­er­ally?

Ber­man: Right. “¦ This is a P-5+1 po­s­i­tion and we’re go­ing to use the means to get oth­er coun­tries to con­tin­ue to com­ply with them.

GSN: To in­clude Rus­sia and China.

Ber­man: Yeah.

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