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.

What We're Following See More »
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
2 days ago

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
2 days ago

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."