By Howard L. Berman

The International Herald Tribune

March 20, 2010

Iran is rapidly acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and the prospects for preventing this nightmare scenario are shrinking by the day. The United States must act urgently to intensify pressure on the Iranian regime — with the cooperation of the international community if at all possible, but on our own if necessary.

It is foolhardy to believe that the West could contain or deter Tehran were it to acquire the bomb. A nuclear-armed Iran would usher in a dangerous new era of instability in the Gulf and Middle East.

Tehran’s terrorist protégés would be emboldened. Iran would act with impunity in the face of U.S. and international pressure to change its dangerous international behavior and cease its horrific human rights abuses. And it would spark a nuclear arms race in the region, leading to the collapse of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

There can no longer be any doubt that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons.

Tehran rejected a generous offer to have its uranium enriched by other nations for use in a medical research reactor — a proposal that would have provided some breathing space for diplomacy.

Last September Iran was caught red-handed building a secret enrichment facility on a military base near the city of Qom. And the regime recently accelerated its efforts to enrich uranium to a higher level, taking it one step closer to the bomb.

Many experts believe Iran could develop a nuclear weapon by the middle of next year, and a nuclear-armed missile in five years or less.

As President Obama recently stated, a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable. But what can we do to stop it?

I strongly supported the president’s repeated efforts to engage Iran on its nuclear weapons program. But all of his diplomatic overtures were rebuffed, and it should now be clear to the world that Tehran has no intention of changing its reckless course in the absence of strong and sustained pressure from the international community.

The time has come to move beyond engagement and to focus our efforts on the pressure track.

The United States has been leading a push for the United Nations Security Council to impose tough sanctions on Iran, but that effort appears to be stalled.

Several members of the Security Council seem unwilling to recognize the extreme urgency of the situation we now face. If recalcitrant governments seek to block or dilute the ability of the United Nations to take strong, swift action, then we Americans will have no choice but to act on our own.

Both the House of Representatives and Senate have passed legislation that would impose tough new sanctions on Iran, and the two bodies will soon meet to reconcile the different bills. In a matter of weeks, we intend to send a final bill to Mr. Obama for his signature.

This legislation will impose severe penalties on companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran or support the development of Iran’s domestic refining capacity. It will include a prohibition on any United States government contracts or grants. It will also close loopholes of an existing law intended to sanction companies that invest more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector — the major source of funds for its nuclear weapons programs.

In anticipation of these changes to U.S. law, several major companies have already decided to stop dealing with Iran.

The final legislation should also sanction foreign firms that sell equipment and technology used by the Iranian regime to tyrannize its people.

Congress will closely monitor developments at the U.N. Security Council in the coming days and weeks, and we still hope to see a breakthrough on tough new sanctions that would cause Iran to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons.

To the greatest extent possible, the legislation should complement multilateral sanctions, and we should give the Obama administration a little bit more breathing room to achieve a positive result.

But with Iran’s nuclear clock ticking and its people suffering, the world must understand that America’s patience is limited and the time to wait is coming to an end.

Howard L. Berman, a Democratic Congressman from California, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.