French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington on Monday to make a concerted effort at convincing US President Donald Trump to keep intact the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the US, UK, Russia, France, China and Germany.
Trump has given European powers until May 12 to offer new, stricter terms to the deal that they would together enforce with the US, or else he will reimpose nuclear sanctions on Tehran, effectively withdrawing the US from the accord and risking its collapse.
Trump administration officials say the president is approaching Iran policy holistically and that he refuses to separate out Iran’s nuclear ambitions from its regional designs. But Macron has said the nuclear deal is a technical document that accomplishes the limited goal of capping Tehran’s enrichment work and provides insight into the bowels of the program, which are scattered across Iran.
“For nuclear, what do you have as a better option? I don’t see it,” Macron told Fox News on Sunday
. “What is your plan B? I don’t have any Plan B for nuclear against Iran.”
Advocates of the agreement hope that Macron, whom Trump has come to admire and respect, may be able to convince the US president to stick with the accord. These talks may be Macron’s final chance.
State Department officials say they have been “two-tracking” their policy on the deal, simultaneously negotiating “fixes” with Europe while contingency planning for Trump’s threatened exit. Privately, officials acknowledge they do not know what Trump will ultimately decide – or what will satisfy him and stop his desire to exit.
Instead of reimposing nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which were lifted under the 2015 deal, France, Britain and Germany are proposing new sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile activity and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. But they have drawn a red line against taking any actions that would violate the deal itself.
“We believe it is extremely important to uphold this agreement,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday. “Were it to fail or the US to drop out, we would not have anything comparable to it and we fear that the situation would significantly deteriorate with everything that goes with it.”
During a speech on Monday night at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his support for the tough rhetoric adopted by the Trump administration in opposing the nuclear deal.
He referenced former prime minister Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and said that Israel’s stance has not changed since then.
“Israel will not allow regimes that seek our annihilation to acquire nuclear weapons,” said Netanyahu of Iran.
“This is why we opposed so resolutely the Iran deal because it gives Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapon,” he continued, adding that the agreement “has to be either fully fixed or fully nixed.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, meanwhile, said implementation of the nuclear accord was “all or nothing,” days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned of “unpleasant” consequences both “expected and unexpected” if the deal collapses.
“President Macron is correct in saying there’s no ‘Plan B’ on JCPOA,” Zarif wrote on Twitter, referring to the deals formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “It’s either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage President Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more importantly to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith.”
In the Fox interview, Macron urged Trump to maintain a US troop presence in eastern Syria for the same reason he is concerned with the nuclear deal: to check Iran’s ambitions in the region, which include the construction of a contiguous land bridge from Tehran to Beirut through Baghdad and Damascus. Trump said last month that he wants to bring all troops home from the war-torn country upon completion there of a US mission against Islamic State.
Macron believes he has convinced Trump to keep troops in the field and now hopes that his relationship with Trump can buy the world more time on the nuclear accord.
The Trumps are rolling out the red carpet for the Macrons, offering them a military welcome, a Marine One tour of Washington’s monuments, a private dinner for four at George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon and a formal state dinner in the White House mansion.
Trump has been quiet of late on the Iran nuclear talks. But he cited disagreements on Iran strategy and his visceral dislike for the nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration in firing his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster weeks ago.
The replacements he chose have both advocated rolling back the agreement.
By law, the president is required to wave sanctions lifted by the deal every 120 days. In January, Trump issued waivers vowing not to do so again without changes to the agreement from Europe. That deadline is May 12
If those sanctions are reimposed, either in whole or in part, they would amount to “significant nonperformance” under the terms of the multilateral accord and would likely result in international condemnation of the US administration. Iran’s next moves are unknown.
But the sanctions themselves would most gravely affect European businesses. They are subject to secondary sanctions – referred to by the European Commission as “extraterritorial” – meaning they would force foreign businesses to choose between engaging in the US or Iranian marketplaces.
The sanctions were welcomed by Europe when they were first imposed under the Obama administration because the EU itself had its own parallel sanctions against Iran over its nuclear work. But since the nuclear deal those sanctions have been lifted, and all parties to the JCPOA have agreed not to discourage foreign direct investment in Iran.
European powers fear that one result of Trump reimposing those old, secondary sanctions might include another front of a trade war.
“You cannot make a trade war with your allies,” Macron said during the Fox interview, addressing the concerns. “It’s too complicated if you make war against everybody, you make trade war against China, trade war against Europe, war in Syria, war against Iran.”
“It doesn’t work,” Macron added. “You need allies.”
Pressed to outline the administration’s current position, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated Trump was prepared to “negotiate,” and thus to alter his position by entering talks with Macron. “We certainly think there should be a better deal,” Sanders said.