Au revoir, nuclear deal — or did Macron play the Trump card? 

Au revoir, nuclear deal — or did Macron play the Trump card? 

When President Emmanuel Macron of France arrived in Washington on Monday to meet US President Donald Trump, it was far easier to list the key issues dividing the two leaders than those where they saw eye-to-eye. Both are out-of-the-ordinary politicians in their distinctive ways, but their very different world views are reflected in their divergent positions on trade, climate change and multilateral diplomacy.

However, it was the attempt to build bridges over an international agreement — the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — that topped the agenda of the US-France summit. Midway through Macron’s state visit, the chances of narrowing the gap between the allies on Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s aggressive regional policies appeared to have increased. But, as the visit drew to a close, Macron did not disguise the uncertainty and even his pessimism surrounding European attempts to keep the US in the nuclear deal. 

Speaking to reporters before departing from the US capital, the French president said: “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.” And he also chastised his American counterpart’s constant swings on critical global matters as “insane,” saying that this approach “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term.”

On Jan. 12, the US administration announced it would pursue with its European allies a “new supplemental agreement” to the nuclear deal of 2015. The aim was a follow-up agreement to curb Iran’s development and testing of long-range missiles, strengthen inspection powers by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and address the flaws of the current “sunset clause” on the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 2025. 

Trump set May 12 as the deadline for Paris, Berlin and London to either come on board or watch the US walk away from the deal, which in practice would mean not reissuing waivers of US sanctions by the May deadline. 

Uncertainty reigns despite Emmanuel Macron's determined efforts to keep Donald Trump and US on board with the Iran nuclear deal.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

The Europeans — who invariably see the nuclear deal as a landmark achievement for global security, with the additional advantage of fostering potential trade and investment opportunities with Iran — quickly responded to the challenge. A working group including senior officials from the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) and the US State Department’s senior policy adviser Brian Hook met regularly over the past few months to find a solution for keeping the US in the deal while meeting Trump’s demands. 

Macron was a natural fit to spearhead this last, critical European attempt to prevent the US from abandoning the nuclear deal. France was the first of the E3 to call for tougher measures to address the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile program. And Macron also enjoys a better relationship with Trump than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrived in Washington later in the week. 

The proposal delivered by Macron for so-called add-on agreements to the existing nuclear deal seemed to have found a more receptive American president, although the exact content of the new proposal remains to be seen. Apparently, there are four documents (one main declaration and three specific texts) that address not only concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities and ballistic missiles program, but also a strategy of containment of Iran in Syria and the wider Middle East. 

“Nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th, although Mr. President (Macron), you have a pretty good idea,” Trump said during a joint press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “But we’ll see.” He concluded the press conference on a positive note: “We can change and we can be flexible. In life, you have to be flexible.”

Macron also sounded a positive note, explaining that US and French officials were working “intensively” on a common approach to Iran’s military activities and regional policies. Specifically on Iran, he said that “we have a disagreement regarding the JCPOA but I think we are overcoming it by deciding to work toward a deal, an overall deal,” which apparently goes as far as the conflict in Syria. 

The next day, in a joint meeting of Congress, Macron delivered a 50-minute address, during which he staunchly defended the liberal world order — a clear rebuke to the nationalism of Trump’s “America First” agenda — for which he received a long standing ovation. He vowed Iran would “never possess any nuclear weapons” and defended the notion that the best way to do it was through a substantial nuclear agreement. 

Following his powerful Congressional address, Macron tweeted: “We decided with President (Trump) to work on a new comprehensive deal.”

The French president’s pessimistic final words before leaving the US capital could easily be interpreted as a sign the Trump administration has pretty much made up its mind about reinstating sanctions on Iran, which would equate to a rejection of the nuclear deal. Yet, when considered in the overall context of the visit and the various statements made during the summit — including those from US officials contradicting one another — it seems uncertainty will remain the word of order until the very last minute. 

It is even possible that Macron intentionally sounded a more negative note ahead of the visit of Merkel, who has a far frostier relationship with Trump and has been less open to his administration’s demands and peculiarities.  

  • Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
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