As ‘bigger deal’ is explored, Iran comes under fresh pressure

Macron laid out a four-pronged approach to rein in Iran well beyond the limits of the 2015 nuclear accord.
Sunday 29/04/2018
US President Donald Trump (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House in Washington, on April 24. (Reuters)
Body language. US President Donald Trump (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House in Washington, on April 24. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Iran could come under fresh international pressure over its ballistic missile programme and its expansion of influence in the Middle East because of a “bigger deal” between European powers and the United States that would keep the controversial nuclear agreement in place.

In a state visit to the White House, French President Emmanuel Macron laid out a four-pronged approach to rein in Iran well beyond the limits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear accord is formally known.

Macron’s vision, spelled out during a news conference with US President Donald Trump, is based on keeping the JCPOA in place, making sure there is “no nuclear Iranian activity” in the long run and ending Iran’s ballistic missile programme. It aims to create conditions for political solutions to crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, where Iranian meddling is seen as a threat by the West and its allies in the region. Macron said the goal was to “contain Iran.”

Trump, who faces a decision about whether to scrap the Iran deal by May 12, remains opposed to the agreement, which, he said, “should have never, ever been made.” He warned Tehran against embarking on aggressive behaviour. “If Iran threatens us in any way, [it] will pay a price like few countries have ever paid,” he said.

Trump stopped short of announcing a US withdrawal from the pact, indicating instead that he might side with Macron in seeking a more comprehensive counter to Iran’s influence. “I think we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger — maybe — deal, maybe not deal,” Trump said. “We’re going to find out but we’ll know fairly soon.”

Macron’s proposals were based on months of internal discussions between the United States and its European partners — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — that are signatories to the 2015 agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to press the same points during a visit to Washington. A consensus between key Western powers on Iran could end more than a year of uncertainty caused by Trump’s vocal opposition to the JCPOA. It would also be a face-saving way for the US president to avoid losing leverage over Tehran by withdrawing from the accord, as he promised he would during the 2016 election campaign.

While not denying its flaws, the Europeans say the JCPOA offers a way to put the brakes on at least some of Iran’s activities. “This agreement may not address all concerns but we should not abandon it without having something substantial and more substantial instead,” Macron said in a speech before a joint session of the US Congress in Washington.

New negotiations about the accord itself and Trump’s positive response to them indicate that the US president is unlikely to bring the Iran deal down by announcing a return of sanctions against Tehran by May 12, observers said.

“I don’t think it will be a categorical break,” says Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “He will at most take the United States out but then let it be known that the United States will not reimpose sanctions in the immediate future,” Vatanka wrote via e-mail in response to questions.

One reason Macron could make headway with his plan in Washington is that many members of the US national security community want to keep the United States in the JCPOA.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s newly sworn in secretary of state and a hawk on Iran issues, said during his US Senate confirmation hearings that his task was to “fix the Iran deal, not to destroy it.”

“The Europeans are not blinded to the fact that much of the US foreign policy community also supports the JCPOA while Trump himself does not want to go to war with Iran over the matter,” Vatanka wrote. “Simple logic then tells us some kind of a diplomatic path forward ought to be possible given these realities.”

Vatanka said he does not expect the Iranians to walk away from the JCPOA if Trump stays within those limits. “As long as there are no new UN sanctions on Iran, which is unlikely, the Iranians will probably just learn to live with it. They won’t leave the JCPOA just because the United States does; they will measure the overall value of the agreement and not just the parts that pertain to the United States.”

Iranian President Hassan Rohani rejected the idea of rewriting the nuclear deal but new talks about the JCPOA itself would not be necessary under Macron’s plan. US non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford laid out such an approach without providing details. “We are not aiming to renegotiate the JCPOA or reopen it or change its terms,” he said in Geneva. “We are seeking a supplemental agreement that would in some fashion layer upon it a series of additional rules.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said reintroduction of US sanctions would collapse the JCPOA. “If the United States were to withdraw from the nuclear deal, the immediate consequence, in all likelihood, would be that Iran would reciprocate and withdraw,” Zarif told the Associated Press. “There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in.”

Reports said Macron’s plan includes supplemental agreements that would run parallel to the JCPOA. The separate deals would serve to ensure that Iran would not be able to seek nuclear weapons even after the JCPOA’s time limits start to run out in 2025. One model could be a definition by Western powers of criteria for a purely civilian nuclear programme for Iran, with the threat of sanctions should Tehran exceed the limits set in that document.