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.
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. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

July 18, 2014

Howard Berman -- until last year the House Foreign Affairs panel's top Democrat -- supports more nuclear negotiations if real Tehran assurances are within reach.