Future of Iran nuclear accord may hinge on Macron’s visit to Washington

Any changes to the agreement negotiated between the US and Europe would be meaningless if they are not acceptable to Iran.
Sunday 08/04/2018
A 2017 file picture shows French President Emmanuel Macron (L) laughing with US President Donald Trump before a meeting at the Palace Hotel in New York. (AFP)
Seeking middle ground. A 2017 file picture shows French President Emmanuel Macron (L) laughing with US President Donald Trump at the Palace Hotel in New York. (AFP)

The growing assumption in Washington is that US President Donald Trump will choose to effectively withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran on May 12, the date by which he must either certify Iran’s compliance and continue the US waiver on sanctions or decertify Iranian compliance and reimpose harsh US sanctions. The latter choice would, for all purposes, kill the agreement.

Trump’s decision may hinge on two events in April: The first is the EU Council’s meeting in the middle of the month; the second is the state visit to Washington by French President Emmanuel Macron on April 24.

The EU Council must unanimously sign off on any imposition of sanctions by the three EU participants in the agreement — the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

Macron, who by all accounts has a good relationship with the mercurial Trump and has positioned himself as the middleman by arguing in support of some changes to the agreement that the US president favours, may be able to persuade Trump to remain in the deal.

“I think [Macron] will present the European position, try to sell Trump on whatever the E-3 has agreed to and explain the consequences if the US pulls out alone,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “He will remind Trump that sanctions against Iran only became effective when Europe agreed to them in 2012. He may also urge Trump not to create a new crisis with Iran when the Middle East as a whole is so unstable.”

Much will depend on whether the three European countries agree to impose new sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear activities, such as its ballistic missile programme and its regional meddling. Trump also has demanded that the agreement be revised to address the sunset provisions and to tighten inspections at Iranian military facilities.

Talks between the US State Department and its European allies have continued since January to find common ground. Brian Hook, the State Department’s director of policy planning, has travelled to European capitals for discussions. In one of his few comments to the media Hook suggested that common ground between the White House and Europe may not be found and that the State Department is preparing for a termination of the agreement.

“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,” Hook said in March following meetings in Berlin and Vienna. “We’re kind of dual-tracking this.”

Although many observers in Washington have pointed to Trump’s new foreign policy team of Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as national security adviser as an indication that Trump will definitely pull out of the deal in May, Slavin said she is not so certain.

“While I am pessimistic, I don’t rule out a scenario in which incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urges the president not to pull the plug on the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] in May to give more time to work with Europe and also to avoid prejudicing the upcoming summit with [North Korean Supreme Leader] Kim Jong-un.”

Ultimately, any changes to the agreement that the United States and Europe negotiate would be meaningless if they are not acceptable to Iran and the rhetoric out of Tehran suggests that acceptance is unlikely. For Trump, this would be the ideal scenario because it would then be Iran, and not the United States, which withdraws from the accord.

If the nuclear agreement is indeed taken off life support in May, European countries will be faced with a tough decision: If they try and maintain their relationship with Iran by not reimposing harsh sanctions, Trump may retaliate by sanctioning European companies that do business with Tehran.

As a result, Slavin said: “European companies will be even more reluctant to do business with Iran than they are now. The big winner will be China, which will scoop up even more trade with Iran.”