Berman: Engagement with Iran necessary

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — President Obama’s attempt to engage the government of Iran is critical to rallying international support for severe sanctions, according to a top Jewish Congressman.

"The Bush administration’s policy of trying to isolate Iran, coupled with military threats, simply didn’t work," U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said in an interview before a Friday briefing of Jewish community leaders in Los Angeles.

Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, is a key player in shaping U.S. foreign policy and one of Obama’s strongest backers. He has used his authority to resist congressional efforts to rush forward sanctions legislation.

Obama recently tightened the screws by shortening the time limit for a positive Iranian response from the end of the year to late September. Berman is not optimistic that the Iranian government, as now constituted, will respond to the U.S. overtures, but he is certain that subsequent sanctions will therefore be more severe.

"We will tell foreign companies that they have a choice of doing business either with us or with Iran," Berman said.

On the Iranian nuclear program, Berman calculated that the country is approaching the capability of reprocessing low-grade into high-grade uranium and to design for a warhead to deliver a nuclear payload. "They’re not there yet, but they’re getting pretty close," he said.

Despite reported frictions, Jerusalem and Washington see basically eye to eye on the long-range policy toward Tehran, he said.

"In my conversations with Israeli officials, I found that they support our policy as long as three conditions are met," Berman said. These are a time limit on U.S. engagement efforts, a willingness to ratchet up the pressure when needed, and the possibility of exercising the military option.

Berman also praised George Mitchell, Obama’ special envoy to the Middle East, saying he was pressing Arabs equally on taking the necessary steps as he was pressing Israel to freeze settlement.

"It may look at times as if Washington is pounding on Jerusalem, but Mitchell has made it quite clear to the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority that they must accept Israel as a Jewish state and stop their incitements against Jews," Berman said

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