Can Macron’s White House visit save the Iran deal?
The French president has a rapport with his American counterpart but it remains unknown if the accord will survive
French president Emmanuel Macron seems, as much as any world leader, to have developed a rapport with his American counterpart Donald Trump.
But will their apparent bond help European capitals in their struggle to save the Iran nuclear deal from Mr Trump’s wrath?
The idea will be tested Monday when the young French leader begins a state visit in Washington, and European diplomats have a lot invested in what seems a tricky task.
There is not much time. The US president is due to decide by May 12 whether talks with Paris, Berlin and London on tougher anti-Iran measures have advanced far enough.
If he feels the ‘flaws’ in the 2015 deal have not been adequately repaired, he may decide to withdraw his support, opening the way for renewed US sanctions that could torpedo the whole accord.
Europe would see this as a disaster, both in terms of the deal itself – a central plank in their non-proliferation strategy – and in terms of relations with Washington.
If anyone can talk down Mr Trump, it might be the French president, who has better relations with the White House than his British and German counterparts Theresa May and Angela Merkel.
Paris was the first European ally to suggest tougher measures against Iran’s ballistic missile programs to ‘supplement’ the nuclear deal – but will that suffice?
Mr Trump also wants to reform the agreement itself to end the so-called ‘sunset clauses’ that would allow Iran to progressively restart parts of its nuclear program after 2025.
Mr Macron has urged the US president not to scrap the deal in the absence of an alternative.
“I don’t have any Plan B for nuclear – against Iran,” Mr Macron told Fox News Sunday in an English-language interview, arguing that working to curb Tehran’s missile program and contain its regional influence could be accomplished in addition to the 2015 accord.
“So that’s a question we will discuss,” he said, as he prepared to head to Washington.
The West cannot unilaterally reopen the text, and Iran has said the deal is final and warned it is ready to relaunch its nuclear program – which the West alleges is designed to produce an atomic bomb – if it fails.
In addition, the agreement was the fruit of months of intense diplomacy between Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – under EU auspices.
Only Mr Trump wants to rip it up.
“It’s a dialogue of the deaf,” complained one European envoy. A US diplomat acknowledged that getting Mr Trump to buy in will be the “trickiest” part of the problem.
British, French and German representatives have been in deep talks with the State Department’s head of policy Brian Hook on what a supplemental deal would look like.
But the representatives complain privately that, despite progress with their American counterparts, they have no idea whether they are close to an agreement that the mercurial president would accept.
To appease Mr Trump, European capitals are working on a document that would amount to a political engagement to prevent Iran from returning to the nuclear path after the 2015 deal starts to expire.
The Europeans could even call such a statement a new “deal,” if it convinces the US leader to stay within the terms of the original and “true” agreement.
Therein lies the rub.
“He hates the deal,” another European diplomat acknowledged.
All Mr Hook can say is that once he comes to terms with his European partners, it will be up to Mr Trump, in consultations with his hardline new National Security Advisor John Bolton, to decide.
“If we can reach an agreement, then that will be presented to the president by the secretary of state and the NSA, and then he will make a decision on whether he wants to remain in the deal or stop waiving sanctions,” Mr Hook said.
“We always have to prepare for any eventuality, and so we are engaged in contingency planning because it would not be responsible not to engage in it.”
The appointment of Mr Bolton, an avowed Iran hawk, fuelled Europe’s pessimism, as did the nomination of CIA director Mike Pompeo to become the next US secretary of state.
But Mr Pompeo, who has always talked tough on Iran, played down the May 12 deadline in his Senate confirmation hearing.
“I want to fix this deal. That’s the objective,” he told lawmakers concerned that he might push for war.
“If there is no chance to fix it, I’ll recommend to the president we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and better deal. Even after May 12th, even after May 12th, there’s still much diplomatic work to be done.”
As the deadline looms, even some of the more hawkish Washington pundits have begun to suggest the return of US nuclear-related sanctions could be postponed until a new fixed date.
But if all the talk fails and Mr Trump follows his clear inclination to tear up the “terrible deal,” there appears to be no alternative, at least from Europe.
After Mr Macron’s visit, there is only one from Ms Merkel, whose chemistry with the US leader appears more toxic than productive, and then the ball is in Mr Trump’s hands.
Updated: April 22, 2018 11:00 PM