SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — A pair of former defense secretaries said U.S. leaders need to get back to the negotiating table with Iran, because of the potential threat they represent to the Middle East and the world at large.

“The bottom line is, they are dangerous,” said Leon Panetta, who served as the head of the Defense Department under President Barack Obama. “We need to try to get them to the negotiating table. And I don’t think what we’re doing now is working very effectively to get that done.”

Panetta and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was dismissed ahead of his planned retirement by President Donald Trump almost a year ago, made the comments at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum here on Saturday.

Mattis has repeatedly warned of the threat a nuclear-capable Iran poses to international security, and said at the event that “it's going to take allies and partners” to make progress on containing the country’s belligerence.

“You've also got the internal dynamics there where you can be dealing with people who really are trying to deal with you in good faith, but meanwhile behind the scenes something completely different is going on,” he said.

Both men offered veiled criticism of the administration's handling of the Iranian military shooting down a U.S. military drone in June, saying that they would have pushed for a stronger response. The White House announced new economic sanctions on the country after the attack and launched a cyber operation against Iranian missile systems.

“If they don't understand that we are willing to exercise that (military) strength, we have a hell of a time trying to get them to try to abide by the kind of international standards that we would like them to,” Mattis said.

Neither man specifically endorsed a military response to future similar incidents. Mattis said he would not publicly second-guess defense officials involved in the incident but “in this world you don't make false threats.” Panetta said he wanted to see “additional steps taken to make clear that we're not going to allow that,” to include a stronger cyber response.

But both said the incident should underscore the importance of trying to make progress with the rogue nation, to prevent the situation from escalating further.

The defense forum, in its seventh year, brings together lawmakers and defense leaders for a day of discussions on national security strategy, priorities and challenges.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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