Tehran could soon have humankind's most frightening weapon if substantial diplomatic progress is not made in the coming days.
The United States, along with its partners Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany (known as the "P5 plus one"), will sit down on Thursday with a representative of Iran. From the American perspective, the principal item on the agenda is Iran's illicit nuclear program. Iran's leaders have said they are prepared to talk about virtually anything but that. If diplomacy does not rapidly deliver results, the United States will have to adopt tough measures to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.
For years Iran spurned diplomatic overtures to address the threat posed by its nuclear program. Meanwhile, its efforts have progressed to the point that it already has enough low-enriched uranium to produce fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
Tehran's admission this week that it has secretly constructed a second enrichment plant suggests that its program may be further along than we had imagined. We do not have much time to wait.
I support President Obama's efforts to engage Iran. Thanks to these efforts, no one will be able to say that we failed to do everything possible to give Iran a diplomatic way out. But there is more than ample reason to be skeptical that the regime in Tehran intends to come clean about its nuclear program.
Friday's revelations about the second uranium enrichment plant cast a particularly dark shadow over Iranian intentions, and they come after more than 20 years of deception and stonewalling by Tehran.
It is critical that we set clear timelines and benchmarks by which to judge Iranian intentions as well as unambiguous consequences if Iran fails to meet the criteria. The window for Iran to demonstrate seriousness of purpose should start with the Oct. 1 meeting and, as Obama has indicated, should close by the end of the year.
If Tehran is serious about engagement, it should agree early on to meaningful steps, such as a "freeze for freeze" in which Iran does not add to its enrichment capabilities -- including halting construction on the second enrichment facility, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- in exchange for an agreement that no additional international sanctions would be imposed during this period. Iran must also agree to verifiably suspend nuclear enrichment by year's end. Were that to happen, the international community could enter into detailed negotiations with Iran about all issues of concern and the incentives that could be offered in exchange for a satisfactory understanding of Iran's nuclear intentions and assurance that Iran would not be able to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
But if, as I expect, that scenario does not come to pass, we should be ready immediately to impose what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called "crippling sanctions." Iran's economy is in terrible shape, and the regime no longer can take for granted the support of its citizens. The best conduit for such sanctions would be a mandatory U.N. Security Council resolution. That would require the difficult-to-obtain acquiescence of Russia and China. Failing that, multilateral agreement by the Europeans, Japan, Australia and Canada to impose coordinated financial, trade and investment sanctions would be a serious alternative. If even that proves impossible, I believe the threat posed to our national security by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran obligates the United States to impose sanctions unilaterally.
The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which I, along with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced, provides such authority to act. The bill, which has more than 300 co-sponsors (its companion in the Senate has 75 co-sponsors), provides President Obama with a mandate to increase the level of financial penalties against Iran and would prevent companies that facilitate the provision of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran from doing business in the United States. Much of the world's trade is conducted through international financial transactions in dollars that must be cleared through American banks. So if the United States were to prevent any bank doing business with Iranian banks from clearing dollar transactions, the Iranian banking system would collapse. And because Iran has to import 25 percent or more of its daily demand for refined petroleum, its economy would be seriously impaired if it were denied those imports. Indeed, a credible threat of both these sanctions might provide the best chance to persuade the Iranian regime to agree to suspend its nuclear enrichment.
To have a sanctions bill ready for the president's signature by early next year, we must start the process for passing it now. I intend to bring our bill to committee for consideration next month. Should negotiations with Iran not succeed and should multilateral sanctions not get off the ground, we must be prepared to do what we can on our own.
Howard L. Berman, a Democratic representative from California, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.