'Iran talks should last 12 weeks max'

'Iran talks should last 12 weeks max'

The US should consider making concessions to Russia on the placement of a missile-defense shield in Europe, in order to get Moscow to back "crippling" concessions against Iran if the time comes, a leading US congressman said Thursday.

Howard Berman, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that one reason for a limited dialogue with the Iranians to get them to suspend uranium enrichment would be to encourage other countries to "buy into crippling" sanctions if Teheran failed to do so.

Berman said the US-Iran talks should be of a set duration, somewhere between eight and 12 weeks, so the Iranians would not, as they had done in the past, use the negotiations as a cover to continue their nuclear program and their weapons development.

In an interview after addressing a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Berman also said the new US administration should not interfere if Israel felt it necessary to take military action in the Gaza Strip.

"The [rocket] strikes, the ongoing [arms] smuggling, the Hamas efforts to modernize their arsenal - all these things together pose a real threat to Israel, and an intolerable situation. There is obviously a big price to pay for deciding to take military action, but I think the US should support the Israeli decision on this," he said.

American efforts to restrain Israel, he said, would only further empower Hamas.

He said he believed the Obama administration would be "very reluctant" to interfere with an Israeli "self-defense action."

Regarding Iran, Berman said the chances of getting the international community to put its full weight behind sanctions were greater once dialogue between the US and Iran was established.

When asked whether he genuinely thought Moscow would cooperate with sanctions that would include a ban on refined oil exports to the Islamic republic, Berman said that the US had "lots of different issues" with Russia, and that he did not think the Bush administration had "prioritized Iran on those issues."

The Russians knew full well how important this issue was for the US, and at the same time were watching the US "push policies that they deeply resent," such as the missile-defense system in Europe and the quick expansion of NATO, he said.

Without advocating a tradeoff of Iranian sanctions for the missile-defense system, Berman - who said matters did not have to be seen in stark, black and white terms - did say that when you "look at all the issues together," there was a chance to reach a greater level of cooperation with Moscow.

"It is hard for me to believe they want to see Iran get nuclear weapons," Berman said of the Russians. "I think there is an interest there, but it is not as high an interest as some of the [other] ones they feel threatened by."

As an example of where the US may be able to show some flexibility on the missile-defense system, Berman mentioned an idea that was proposed but later retracted, to let the Russians have monitors at the missile shield site to ensure it was directed at Iran and not at them.

Berman said he supported a limited dialogue with Teheran because "the current strategy is not working."

At the same time, he said there was no guarantee that dialogue would produce good results, or that reordering the priorities with the Russians would get them on board, "but I think it's worth trying."

Berman said time was of the essence and that as result, he would begin the negotiations immediately and not wait until after the Iranian elections in June. He also said that if the negotiations failed, crippling sanctions could have an impact. These types of sanctions could threaten the Iranian regime, he said, because it was more sensitive to public pressure than other authoritative regimes, such as Syria.

"What is the public pressure on [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, I don't quite know," Berman said. "I think Iran is different."

Berman said the Israeli and US timelines for when Iran would reach the nuclear threshold were not that different. Israeli officials have been saying Iran may reach the point of no return by the end of 2009.