Trump-Macron summit to focus on Iran nuclear deal, Syria conflict

Macron has been working for months to find a way to save the Iran nuclear agreement.
Sunday 22/04/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and his US counterpart Donald Trump in Paris, last July. (AFP)
Chemistry under test. French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and his US counterpart Donald Trump in Paris, last July. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump will host his first state dinner on April 24 when he welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron to the White House. The two leaders are expected to discuss a wide range of issues, prominent among them the future of the Iran nuclear agreement and the conflict in Syria.

Although Trump, at age 71, is old enough to be the 40-year-old Macron’s father, the two leaders have developed a close relationship. Trump seems to genuinely respect Macron’s views despite that the French president openly criticised Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, has condemned the Trump administration’s proposed tariffs on steel and is seeking to save the nuclear deal with Iran that Trump hates.

“Among those in the current US administration, President Macron is perceived to be a solid partner,” said Spencer Boyer of the BMW Centre for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. “Not only do Macron and President Trump have personal chemistry, which was seen by all during Trump’s trip to France last summer, but Macron’s decision to team with the US and UK in striking Syrian chemical weapons facilities recently demonstrated solidarity on a key security priority.”

Analysts in Washington said Macron’s invitation to Trump to be his guest of honour last year in Paris for France’s Bastille Day celebrations was a stroke of genius, a gesture of respect towards a man known to cherish attention.

It is yet to be seen, however, whether Trump’s respect and fondness for Macron will mean the French president can change the US president’s mind on Iran or other issues.

Macron has been working for months to find a way to save the Iran nuclear agreement by convincing the United Kingdom and Germany to agree to new sanctions against Tehran for its missile programme and regional behaviour.

“The French feel like they have moved quite a way to try to satisfy the administration on ballistic missiles and have worked hard to try to bring along more recalcitrant EU partners to agreeing to concessions to try to satisfy the US,” said Jeff Lightfoot, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Centre on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

However, Lightfoot said: “At the end of the day, the French are somewhat pessimistic that any concessions will be enough, because they recognise that Trump alone will make the decision, that his new set of advisers are more hawkish and that Trump is known for whimsical, unpredictable decision-making.”

Boyer was also sceptical. “Getting the United States to stick with the Iran nuclear accord will be Macron’s top priority during his visit to Washington but the prospects for a major breakthrough are unclear,” he said.

“It’s helpful that Macron and President Trump have personal rapport. It’s uncertain, however, if this will be enough to overcome the hard-line posture Trump has taken towards Iran,” said Boyer, who formerly served as the US national intelligence officer for Europe and as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

Lightfoot suggested that a compromise of sorts may be possible. “I wouldn’t rule out the prospect of some sort of outcome in which the US perhaps exits the Iran deal but doesn’t impose secondary sanctions on European businesses looking to invest in Iran. This would put the burden on the Iranians as to how they would want to respond,” he said.

The New York Times reported that Macron spoke to Syria’s principal ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, just hours before French forces participated in the US-led strike against Syrian targets on April 14 and later announced that his planned visit to Russia in May was still on. That suggests he may be positioning Paris as the mediator between Washington and Moscow, a role France sought to play during the Cold War.

Speaking April 15 on French television, Macron took credit for reversing Trump’s pledge to remove US troops from Syria, although many of Trump’s own advisers, such as US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, have tried to get him to change course.

“The French are very clear on Syria, unlike the US administration,” Lightfoot said. “They want the US to stay in Syria to finish the fight versus ISIS.”

Macron also would like the United States to be more active on the diplomatic front in Syria, Lightfoot said, with the goal of finding “a diplomatic solution that results in some sort of political transition without insisting on an Assad departure as a condition.”

One Middle East issue that is unlikely to come up in the Trump-Macron summit is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The two presidents might discuss the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem but, with tough issues regarding Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia and Trump’s moves on global trade likely on the agenda, I doubt that the peace process will be a priority topic,” Boyer said. Lightfoot concurred, saying: “I wouldn’t expect Macron to use political capital on it.”