By Eleanor Beevor
French President Emmanuel Macron is a staunch believer in international cooperation. In a time of rising resentment towards the European Union, he stuck to his faith in the institution during his electoral campaign, even putting an EU flag alongside the French one. This faith in multi-national treaties is undented after his victory.
He has vociferously defended the Paris Climate Accords. And he took a frontman’s role in attacking the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stocks after the Douma attack. Macron’s chosen defence of the strikes was the need to enforce international agreements on chemical weapons.
The former position on the climate accords drew the ire of President Donald Trump, but the latter on Syria seemed to make Macron Trump’s new best friend. And having forged that unlikely partnership, Macron began a high-stakes game trying to change Trump’s mind about the latter’s least favourite international deal – the Iran deal.
Shakier than ever!
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal overseen by President Obama in 2015, is looking shakier than ever, and Trump is the reason. Throughout his Presidential campaign, Trump vowed to scrap the deal, insisting that it was not tough enough on Iran.
The JCPOA is not, however, an exclusively American deal. The signatories to it are Iran and the Permanent Five (P5) members of the UN Security Council - America, Russia, China, Britain and France, as well as Germany, and with the close cooperation of the European Union.
In exchange for Iran accepting restrictions on nuclear enrichment, the P5 and the EU would lift economic sanctions on Iran. Iran’s nuclear facilities are now closely watched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear regulator, and the agency has confirmed that Iran has complied with all requirements to the deal so far.
Nevertheless, President Trump insists the deal is insufficiently tough on Iran, citing the fact that Iran will eventually have greater freedom to enrich uranium after an eight-and-a-half-year period.
He has also cited Iran’s other provocations, such as its regular use of ballistic missiles, as evidence that it will not be a reliable partner to the agreement. However, for a time, Trump’s hand was stayed. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis attempted to persuade Trump that the JCPOA remained the least-worst option to prevent a nuclear Iran.
And even prior opponents of the deal such as Paul Ryan acknowledged that the American position would be weaker if they pulled out of the JCPOA now. Whilst America can choose to end the waiver on sanctions on Iran, that will only restore unilateral American sanctions, rather than the internationally upheld sanctions that so crippled the Iranian economy prior to the JCPOA.
Thus instead of pulling out of the agreement right away in line with his campaign promises, Trump gave the JCPOA’s partners an ultimatum - either they fix “flaws” that he identified in the deal, or they would lose American cooperation. And the deadline of that ultimatum – May 12th – is fast-approaching.
Fixing the flaws
Whether one believes that the “flaws” Trump has highlighted negate the JCPOA’s security advantages or not, it is highly unlikely that all Trump’s ultimatum demands can be met. Certainly Iran has not taken kindly to Trump’s demands to renegotiate the agreement.
President Hassan Rouhani has said several times that Iran is ready to resume nuclear enrichment if the deal falls through, and has indicated that it is meaningless without American participation.
Rouhani’s diplomatic tone is gone. In a statement directed at Trump, he said “You are just a businessman, a tradesman. You are a tower builder”, and added that Trump did not understand international issues.
Macron decided on Monday that the time had come for drastic action to save the deal. He flew to Washington, ready to put his personal diplomacy to the ultimate test. And in doing so, the French President played a highly risky hand. He appeared to decide to meet Trump halfway. On Tuesday the 24th of April, in a joint press conference at the White House, Macron proposed negotiating a “new deal”, with Trump by his side.
The hypothetical “new deal” would not, apparently, have involved changing the structure of the JCPOA. Rather, it would shore up aspects of the JCPOA, by attempting to place permanent checks on Iranian nuclear activity, as well as separate treaties to restrict ballistic missile activity and Iranian military operations abroad.
This was quite a shift for Macron. Only a few weeks ago he was having to insist to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman that French support for the JCPOA and the spirit of the agreement was unshakeable. But further to that, he was risking alienating his European co-signatories to the JCPOA, to say nothing of Iran.
Trump’s testy reputation among European leaders means that not only would there bound to be disapproval of making concessions to him, but there is no guarantee of support for new measures by the other signatories or the broader EU. Ahmad Majidyar, the Director of the Iran Observed Project at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. told Al Bawaba:
“Macron does not speak for all of Europe and many countries there would not support the strict measures Macron has pledged to Trump to broaden the scope of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
France, Britain and Germany – the three signatories of the Iran deal – couldn’t even convince other European states such as Italy, Spain and Sweden to back moderate and targeted sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missiles earlier this month. And Iran has rejected all of Washington’s key demands to change the nuclear deal and is unlikely to alter its regional posture or curb its missile activity.”
Yet it may have been in vain. Just before he left Washington, Macron appeared to not only concede defeat at having failed to change Trump’s mind, but he also let loose a series of overt criticisms of his counterpart.
He set out again his defence of liberal globalism, and in a thinly veiled reference to Trumpian politics said “We can choose isolationism. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.”
He then played off American belief in their exceptionalism and world leadership with Trump’s apparent retreat from that, insisting to the American audience that “you built” the post-war institutions of global cooperation, and that they also must save them.
We may not know for sure whether Macron’s double-bluff works until Trump’s deadline on May 12th, when the US will have to declare whether it is ending the sanctions waiver on Iran or not. And even if Trump takes Macron’s opportunity to save face whilst preserving the deal, by jointly trying to demand further concessions from the Iranians, there is no guarantee Tehran will accept.
Rouhani banked his campaign on a dignified nuclear deal, and any new terms will be too easily spun as a humiliation for Iran. The deal still hangs in the balance for now, but it will be astonishing indeed if Macron’s eleventh hour rescue attempt proves successful.
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