OP-ED: Trump lowers the bar for a deal with Iran

Eli Lake
Bloomberg News (TNS)
U.S. President Donald Trump begins bilateral talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the margins of the G7 Summit on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. (Michael Kappeler/DPA/Abaca Press/TNS)

When President Donald Trump finally followed through on his threats and withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, it looked like he was after something far more ambitious. Shortly after the announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined 12 conditions for the U.S. to lift the sanctions Trump had just reimposed, including an end to threats against Israel, a withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria and the release of all U.S. citizens Iran was detaining.

This week, at a press conference at the Group of Seven summit in France, Trump whittled down those conditions to just three. “We’re looking for: no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time,” he said, referring to the expiration of many conditions of the last deal in 2030. “Very simple, we can have it done in a very short period of time.”

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Trump was speaking on a podium with French President Emanuel Macron, who had invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the summit over the weekend. Macron is one of many intermediaries seeking to arrange a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Trump said he would be open to such a meeting if the Iranians were “good players” and “if the circumstances were correct.”

This is not a particularly new position for the president. He has frequently said he is interested in talks with Iran and has stressed that his goal is not an end to Iran’s regime, but rather a better deal.

The news is that Trump is making this gesture now. Iran has not made any significant changes to its rhetoric, policy or behavior; just last weekend, for example, it imposed sanctions on a Washington think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. While it’s unclear what impact this may have, a state news agency indicated that actions “against the FDD and their Iranian and non-Iranian accomplices will be considered legitimate.”

Iran has a long history of extrajudicial assassinations and threats to individuals in the West, from novelist Salman Rushdie to Kurdish opposition figures exiled in Europe. The think tank’s president, Cliff May, told me that the FDD is taking extra precautions.

The episode helps illustrate why Pompeo’s initial demands are so important. Of course it’s paramount that Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons be stopped. But any deal with the regime would also have to address the totality of its behavior. One of the reasons so many Republicans opposed the deal in the first place is because it provided Iran with considerable economic relief without addressing its regional predations.

Now Trump appears to be willing to negotiate a second version of his predecessor’s narrow nuclear deal. It’s not a bargain the president should make, nor is it one that supporters of an open society for Iran should accept.

— Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.