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US-Iran next moves — Déjà vu of Obama administration mistakes?

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Iran declared on Monday that its president, Hassan Rouhani, would refuse to meet with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the upcoming UN General Assembly. Tehran’s announcement came after Iranian proxies allegedly attacked a major Saudi oil facility over the weekend, and after months of vows from Iranian leaders that they would never renegotiate with the U.S. after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord last year.

Trump, for his part, insisted he would not engage with Tehran until he saw a total change in Iran’s destabilizing behavior, echoing his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who delineated 12 requirements that Iran must meet in order to demonstrate that it is a “normal country.” But now it appears Trump may be wavering. One might even say he is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Barack Obama. He is even using the same language as the president he once derided, calling for incentives that would facilitate negotiations.

To avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it’s important to understand how they were made.

In 2012, two senior American officials from the U.S. National Security Council and the State Department arrived in Israel for a secret visit. At the time, I was the head of the Strategic and Defense Policy Directorate at Israel’s National Security Council, and I participated in these meetings. The U.S. officials told us that the U.S. needed to engage in a dialogue with Iran, together with Russia, China and the Europeans. They said that the regime in Iran needed to see an off-ramp from the nuclear standoff. They wanted to offer an incentives package in the form of sanctions relief in exchange for minor concessions from the Iranians. If Tehran rejected the incentives package, they said, the U.S. and its partners would double down on sanctions.

We warned against this, urging the officials not to go down this slippery slope. Once you begin negotiations, we argued, they can take on a life of their own, and negotiators become enamored with the process itself. We insisted that the starting point should be full Iranian compliance with all UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, and only then should confidence-building measures come into play. The American officials assured us that their ultimate goal was full compliance with all UNSC resolutions, meaning zero uranium enrichment, zero plutonium, zero heavy water, resolving the possible military dimensions (PMD) of the program, and a complete end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Iranians then proceeded to out-negotiate their counterparts at the subsequent clandestine meetings in Oman. An interim agreement was hammered out in 2013, granting Iran significant sanctions relief for simply sitting at the table. The 2015 final agreement granted the regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief and normalization, all without achieving any of the goals that the Obama administration had promised.

What has happened since should come as no surprise. Iranian support for terrorism worldwide has increased. The regime’s ballistic missile program has expanded. Violations of the Iran nuclear accord have been many. After a daring Mossad raid on a nuclear archive in Tehran last year, it is now clear that Iran is violating the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA), which requires Tehran to provide information about all nuclear sites, equipment, and material in its territory. And last week, the Israeli prime minister revealed another clandestine nuclear site that Iran failed to disclose.

It’s hard to understand how the current U.S. administration is even thinking about a lifeline to the regime right now. Once again, the regime is demanding meaningful sanctions relief in exchange for nothing more than a meeting. And once again, the U.S. side is not demanding meaningful preconditions. Despite Trump’s tough talk about Obama entering into the “worst deal ever,” it appears he’s been mulling a similar path.

Before Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he offered the Iranians multiple opportunities to negotiate. They turned him down, saying there was nothing to discuss. But now they are signaling otherwise. In other words, Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions campaign is working. The Iranians are feeling the pressure. As a result, they are likely to concede more at the negotiating table. But the U.S. side must demand those concessions before offering confidence building measures. And it must not offer any concessions just to have a meeting.

Iran is now trying to demonstrate that it can hurt the U.S. through attacks on Middle East oil installations. The regime is also engaging in nuclear blackmail, enriching more uranium and installing new centrifuges, and threatening once again to advance its nuclear program. But the U.S. still maintains the upper hand with sanctions.

The administration should not ease the pressure now, particularly while the Iranians provoke and threaten. Instead, it should issue clear demands to the regime while urging the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to resolve any and all issues relating to Iran’s nuclear activities.

The final goal should still be a new agreement. But it must be a better one.

Such an agreement must address all the core weaknesses of the JCPOA. It must establish clear new terms that ensure Iran no longer has a path to nuclear weapons. These terms should address the three main elements of a nuclear weapons program — the production of fissile material, weaponizing the fissile material, and building the means of delivery. But a new deal can only be achieved after the regime comes clean about its past violations. Tehran must also halt all of its other malign activities, such as terrorism, illicit finance, and destabilizing the Middle East.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 points are still the official American policy. Engagement with Iran is not worth it until the regime shows that it is serious about implementing them.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Professor Jacob Nagel, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council and a former acting national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a visiting professor at the Technion and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD).

Tags Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Criticism of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration Hassan Rouhani Iran Iran–United States relations Mike Pompeo Nuclear program of Iran United States sanctions against Iran

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