Know Comment: Can you hear the music?

A US-Iran ‘Deal of the Century’ could be knottier and more nebulous than valuable.

US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018
Until now, the Trump administration has acted with wisdom and tenaciousness against Iran, crashing the disastrous nuclear deal that president Obama signed with the ayatollahs in 2015 and forcefully sanctioning Iran’s terrorist apparatus and oil exports.
Alas, there are signs that President Trump is getting ready to ease the pressures and bargain for a new deal with Iran. My fear is twofold: that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign will be cut short before Iran’s leaders truly have no choice but to capitulate to Western demands, and that the Iranians will bamboozle the West into another bad deal.
As Iran expert Prof. Ze’ev Maghen has said: “The Iranians win the minute you enter the negotiating room with them.” Unlike the eager negotiators of the West, Iran’s resolute front men always know how to weasel their way to a sweet deal on their terms.
This is not the time to back away from the press-ganging of Iran. Because of American sanctions, Iranian oil exports have fallen by at least 400,000 barrels per day since May of this year, and by two million bpd since April 2018, leading to a whopping drop of $50 billion in regime income.
The Ayatollahs are feeling the strain, which explains their recent threats and provocations. These include the downing a US drone in the Gulf, the seizing of a British oil tanker and the targeting of other ships, renewed uranium enrichment at forbidden levels, and ballistic missile launches in violation of UN Security Council decisions.
It seems that Iran can no longer afford to “wait out Trump” on the assumption that he will be replaced as US president in 2020 by a more accommodating Democratic leader. Ayatollah Khamenei needs to get Trump to lay off, now.
Trump mustn’t do so. There is much more that can and must be done to truly bring Iran to its knees. Dr. Udi Levi, a former Israeli government official and top expert on financial sanctions, published a study last week via the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security that details the necessary next steps. This includes blocking Iran’s sanction-busting export routes through Turkey and Qatar, and hitting at Iran’s foreign currency reserves by enforcing civil court rulings that award victims of terrorism billions of dollars in damages.
The goal is to force Iran to relent on all five key issues in dispute:
1) A complete end to the Iranian nuclear military program, including all uranium enrichment and plutonium production – with no sunset, ever.
2) A truly intrusive international inspections regime (not the jokingly weak to non-existent regime stipulated in the JCPOA).
3) An end to Iran’s ballistic missile development program.
4) An Iranian retreat from the forward bases in Syria it is building to challenge Israel.
5) Complete cessation of Iranian financing of Hamas and Hezbollah military capabilities.
Short of this, a deal with Iran will be dangerous and unsustainable. Yet the Iranians already are playing their usual games, offering up-front phony concessions (like an end to oil tanker interceptions) in exchange for up-front American concessions (like an end to most oil export sanctions).
“This how the Iranians play the game,” warns Iran expert Dr. Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies. “This is how they twist things, making it seem there are concessions when there are absolutely no concessions at all.”
BUT TRUMP HAS BEEN so solid in confronting Iran and in support of Israel, you might object. Why suspect softness on Iran now?
Because the music being played lately in Washington is off-key. First, Trump backed away from responding militarily to Iran’s downing of that top-notch US surveillance drone. Then he authorized Sen. Rand Paul to talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in what seems to be a pre-negotiation. The super-isolationist Rand Paul, of all people!
Now Trump appears set to extend five critical sanction waivers from the Obama era, waivers that should be abruptly ended. These waivers allow Russia, China and European countries to continue civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran in the most problematic places: the underground Fordow enrichment facility, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Arak complex, and the Tehran reactor. (To understand the enormous significance of these waivers for Iran and the shocking complicity of European and Obama establishment elites in Iran’s sanctions-busting strategy, read the shocking expose on this by Dr. Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute.)
As a result, my political antennae are buzzing with warning signals. Trump, I suspect, is shying away from conflict that might imperil his reelection chances, such as heightened confrontation with Iran. (The other conflict that could most harm his reelection campaign is a trade war with China that tanks the US economy. Here too I think that Trump will demur because of the election).
Worse still, Trump’s neo-isolationist instincts and abhorrence of foreign wars, alongside his penchant for grand deals that prove his greatness, make me worry that he could be tempted into a settlement with Iran that falls far short of what’s necessary.
In fact, there is a pattern in Trump’s management of American policy toward China, North Korea, the Palestinians, and now perhaps also with Iran. First comes economic pressure, then the offer of quickie talks in pursuit of a “historic” agreement, an agreement that could be knottier and more nebulous than valuable.
I hope I’m mistaken. But I’ve seen the soft signals and heard the indulgent musical notes before. In 2013, a top American diplomat, then-ambassador Thomas Pickering, showed up in Israel asking for understanding of a “nuanced” and “sophisticated” view of Iran. Iran is emerging as a significant regional and global actor that must be engaged and accommodated, he argued. And there were “moderates” in Tehran, he nonsensically postulated, that needed to be “bolstered” by a deal with the West.
Washington wags close to the Obama administration, like the Center for a New American Security and the Atlantic Council, then began seeding diplomatic and political discourse with messages of capitulation to Iran, paving the way for a climb-down from Obama’s declared policy of halting Iran’s nuclear drive. They outlined “a comprehensive framework to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
In other words, stopping the Iranian nuclear effort already had become a passé discussion. The symphony was playing from different sheet music altogether.
The intellectual music of capitulation grew throughout 2013 and 2014 and rose to a crescendo in 2015, legitimizing Obama’s sell-out of Western and Israeli security interests in the JCPOA deal with Iran.
Could we be looking at a repeat musical performance now? I certainly hope not.
Trump has earned the benefit of our doubt with his stalwart stance against Iran until now. Still, Israel must be wary, and counsel steadfastness and caution. Trump should ramp up the pressures on Iran, not dial them down.
And when he starts talking to Tehran, he should send National Security Advisor John Bolton with some hardnosed Persian taxi drivers or Shas Party-style negotiators at his side – not Rand Paul.
The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, His personal site is