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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Will the US president play a trump card with Iran?

The US president is unlikely to tear up the deal on May 12, writes Raghida Dergham

The French president added that he would have a “useful” and “frank” exchange with Mr Trump at the next G7 summit in Canada. AFP
The French president added that he would have a “useful” and “frank” exchange with Mr Trump at the next G7 summit in Canada. AFP

Most likely, the US president Donald Trump will not tear apart the nuclear deal with Iran on May 12. Most likely too, the Europeans will not cave in to Tehran’s categorical opposition to adding “a single clause” to the agreement, as Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said.

At the White House, the French president Emmanuel Macron almost appeared like a spoiled child, as he embraced Mr Trump and proposed passé framework ideas. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for her part set off for Washington this week, expecting to wield more influence as Europe’s most heavyweight head of state. However, it has long been proven that European “sophistication” has no place in crude and pragmatic American politics. Indeed, the European pretence of refined diplomacy that can teach the Americans something has been exposed as the diplomacy of major corporations – especially German and French – that fear US sanctions on Iran and the restrictions on their own lucrative businesses there.

Ultimately, the issue is not the need to respect the nuclear deal signed between the P5+1 nations and Iran. The issue is the conflict between Europe’s “no-matter-the-cost” commercial interests, which care little for Iran’s encroachments in the Arab world and violation of the principles the Europeans claim to uphold, and Mr Trump’s agenda for containing Iran through sanctions and economic pressure. In the Trump administration’s view, its agenda is the best way to precipitate an internal backlash against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ schemes in the region and the regime’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The US does not need to do much to pursue this course of action. It does not need to bin the agreement. All Mr Trump has to do is not certify it in May, then wait until the sanctions he intends to apply to Iran lead to the outcome he desires and until France and Germany’s resistance crumbles.

Iran’s subversion in the region has been financed and enabled by the nuclear deal, as it helped release billions in frozen assets and unshackle the hands of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, particularly in Syria. There, Europe’s hypocrisy is most glaring, despite the verbal umbrage against Tehran’s intervention to prop up Bashar Al Assad despite his crimes. (Under Barack Obama, the US had a similar immoral policy of turning a blind eye to the Syrian plight to safeguard the nuclear deal).

In truth, it’s not just Iran that is using Syria as its backyard. Alongside the US, Russia and Iran, Turkey, Israel, and France are also embroiled in the conflict there, Paris having recently sent special forces to northern Syria. Correcting Mr Trump’s recent announcement that the US would soon withdraw, US Defence Secretary James Mattis suggested otherwise, saying the US could regret withdrawing from Syria. Yet it is Iran that is in the spotlight because of the US-European tug of war over the fate of the nuclear deal.

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Read more from Opinion:

Hussein Ibish: One president, two threats and three flawed deals: how Trump's nuclear victories will be hollow ones

Damien McElroy: Infighting, rebellion over the customs union and a hefty divorce settlement: how Brexit could leave May behind the wheel with failing brakes

Sarah Brown: Education is the key to the future for dislocated Syrian children

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Mr Mattis could earn Mr Trump’s ire if he does not improve his stance on Iran; the two men are saying contradictory things about the deal. The Pentagon chief is convinced the US is going to stick to the deal despite its flaws – as he told Congress six months ago – because he said it was in line with US interests. On Thursday, Mr Mattis said: “There are obviously aspects of the [nuclear deal] ... that can be improved on. We are working with our European allies on it at this time and again at this time, the decision has not been made whether we can repair it enough to stay, or if the president if going to decide to withdraw from it.” However, two days earlier Mr Trump was criticising the Iran deal and calling for it to be ditched.

At the end of his visit to Washington last week, Mr Macron told reporters: “My view – I don’t know what your president will decide – is that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” The French president denied that he was trying to get his US counterpart to abandon one of his campaign pledges. Instead, Mr Macron said he wanted to prove that the agreement could be improved by addressing its shortcomings with a “four pillar” approach. “For me it’s progress. It avoids falling into the complete unknown if the US decision is a hard exit” from the deal, he said.

Those four pillars Mr Macron wanted to float on behalf of the Europeans involve the issues of uranium enrichment, ensuring no long-term Iranian military nuclear activity resumes, ending Iran’s ballistic missile activities and developing the conditions for a political solution that would contain Iran in the region, in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Those pillars are further evidence of Europe’s evasiveness when it comes to holding Iran accountable. Indeed, Mr Macron’s hints regarding peace talks in Syria, which have been undermined by Mr Al Assad’s allies Iran and Russia, were in passing, as though the matter did not deserve practical elucidation and the same applies to Yemen and Lebanon, where Iran props up the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah.

Mr Macron’s proposals expose Europe’s “refined duplicity”. He invoked the region’s stability in his defence of the nuclear deal but what stability has there been in the Arab world since the nuclear deal was signed in 2015? Why do the Europeans like to pretend that they had no idea that invalidating UN Security Council resolutions curbing Iran’s activities to sweeten the deal has allowed Tehran and its proxies to wreak havoc in the region?

Sooner or later, the Europeans will have to fix their attitude regarding the deal and Iran because it’s not Mr Obama who is in the White House. Indeed, it seems Mr Trump has rejected Mr Macron’s offer – and, by extension, Ms Merkel’s, unless she has something different up her sleeve to offer.

Mr Trump has hinted he wants another deal and is willing to work the details out with the Europeans if they prove they’re serious. He appears willing, too, to stick to the deal on condition the Europeans commit to specific sanctions against Tehran. Otherwise, any US unilateral sanctions could harm European companies dealing with the Iranians.

In the end, Mr Trump seems convinced that a tough approach brings results and he has often cited his North Korean approach as proof. But what will he ultimately do on the May 12 deadline to recertify the deal? “Nobody knows what I am going to do on the 12th," Mr Trump has said. "We'll see if I do what some people expect.”