Will Macron’s visit to Washington prolong the life of the Iran deal by another day?

In spite of his diplomatic efforts, the French president may face his Waterloo on the deal.
Sunday 29/04/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron addressees a joint meeting of Congress inside the House chamber; on April 25. (AFP)
Thorny issue. French President Emmanuel Macron addressees a joint meeting of Congress on April 25. (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the United States served the purpose of committing US President Donald Trump to the transatlantic alliance but also to make the case for the Iran nuclear deal. Macron argued that the agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — should be kept alive.

His success depends on two factors: Is Tehran ready to renegotiate the nuclear deal? More important, who will be the next foreign leader to arrive in Washington? German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a private chat with Trump in the Oval Office on April 27 and delivered the same message as Macron on the Iran deal. The foreign leader who arrives in Washington after Macron and Merkel could play a crucial role.

Trump, who is threatening to scrap the Obama-era nuclear pact between Tehran and world powers by May 12, used the opportunity of Macron’s visit to rage against the “insane” 2015 accord. He emphasised: “They should have made a deal that covered Yemen, that covered Syria, that covered other parts of the Middle East.”

More remarkably, the mercurial American president expressed optimism about future negotiations: “I think we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal.”

Macron agreed that Tehran’s regional influence must be part of further negotiations but warned against ending the nuclear agreement altogether. “We signed it, both the United States and France. That is why we cannot say we should get rid of it like that,” Macron told the US Congress on April 25.

Despite his diplomatic efforts, the French president may face his Waterloo on the deal.

Tehran does not seem particularly willing to renegotiate the nuclear deal. On April 23, Iranian President Hassan Rohani threatened “severe consequences” if the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. Visiting Tabriz in East Azerbaijan province on April 25, Rohani rhetorically asked Washington: “If the JCPOA was bad, why did you sign up to it?”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned that Iran would restart uranium enrichment if Washington walks away from the nuclear deal. Zarif expressed scepticism about renegotiating the deal. He said: “I do not believe that, under the present circumstances, with the present tone and language and approach of the current administration in Washington, you would have much prospect.”

Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was more direct. Shamkhani, who was visiting Sochi, Russia, said: “As a representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I declare that any agreement between Europe and the United States concerning the future of the JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear programme… is worthless in our view…”

“Renewed negotiations concerning an end to sunset clauses concerning Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities means the destruction of the JCPOA,” he added.

Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened: “The Europeans managed to reach an agreement with the Americans and persuaded Trump to remain in the JCPOA. However, should the US commitment to the JCPOA be at the cost of continuation of the sanctions, it is not acceptable to the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He concluded: “Iran is not ready to recognise a JCPOA from which it does not benefit.”

It’s worth noting that Rohani, Zarif, Shamkhani and Velayati were the staunchest supporters of the nuclear agreement in Tehran. If they are reacting to Trump’s threatened pullout in this way, it’s not hard to imagine the prevailing view within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC accuses the government of having made too many concessions to the West while negotiating the nuclear agreement.

Still worse, Macron should fear the next foreign leader to visit Washington after Merkel. The American president, after all, seems to agree with the last person with whom he has had a conversation. He could be swayed against the deal by the Israeli prime minister or any Arab head of state who happens to be in town.

Whether the French president’s visit to Washington will prolong the life of the Iran nuclear deal remains to be seen, but Trump’s thinking is likely to be further swayed by the next foreign leader to visit Washington. As Macron said before flying home: “I don’t know what your president will decide… my view is that there is a big risk he will leave.”