The world lobbies Trump on Iran and awaits his decision

One major world power, Russia, has not taken part in the lobbying campaign.
Sunday 06/05/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and US President Donald Trump confer at the start of a working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, last July. (AFP)
Global lobbying. French President Emmanuel Macron (L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and US President Donald Trump confer at the G20 meeting in Hamburg, last July. (AFP)

The past few weeks have witnessed a remarkable global lobbying campaign as leaders on all sides of the issue attempt to influence US President Donald Trump on his potentially fateful decision on whether to keep the United States in the nuclear agreement with Iran that was negotiated by former President Barack Obama.

Trump must decide by May 12 whether to continue Iran’s relief from US sanctions. If he reinstates sanctions, the United States will effectively cease being a party to the accord.

The first lobbyist was smooth-talking French President Emmanuel Macron, who arrived in Washington April 24 with the goal of persuading Trump to remain in the agreement while negotiating a much better “new deal” with America’s European allies. By the end of that week, Trump appeared to have warmed to the idea — a beautiful “Trumpian” deal to replace the flawed Obama deal.

Speaking to a joint session of the US Congress, however, Macron made it clear he believes even the current flawed deal is better than no deal and pledged that France will continue to abide by the Obama-era agreement even if the United States pulls out. To ensure a round of applause from the Republican-controlled Congress, he added that “Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons. Not now. Not in 5 years. Not in 10 years. Never.”

Within hours of Macron’s departure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped by the White House for a 3-hour meeting with Trump in which Iran topped the agenda. One does not need to be fluent in body language to see that Trump and Merkel are not the best of friends and the difference seemed stark after the Trump-Macron bromance that included the US president’s first official state dinner.

Nevertheless, Merkel diligently made her case: “This agreement is anything but perfect,” she said at the leaders’ joint news conference, “[and] will not solve all the problems with Iran.” However, she added that the agreement “is one piece of the mosaic, one building block, if you like, on which we can build up this structure.” She ended with the plea that the United States and Europe “be in lockstep” on the issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who shares Trump’s hostility to the nuclear accord and actively tried to sabotage it while it was being negotiated, staged a one-man televised lobbying performance on April 29 that resembled one of the late Steve Jobs’ Apple product roll-outs. It included a slide-show that the Israeli leader claimed revealed shocking new intelligence information but was almost entirely old news recycled.

Netanyahu’s show was imminently Trumpian — bombastic, factually challenged and equal parts fear-evoking and aggressive. It was designed to ensure Trump that his instincts were correct and that Israel, at least, would cheer him on if he kills the agreement.

Meanwhile, newly installed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Middle East, with stops in Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis no doubt echoed the Israelis in arguing for a hard line towards Iran and — like the Israelis — they were preaching to the choir.

Iran has been lobbying in its own way — threatening horrible but unspecified consequences if the deal collapses. Trump is unlikely to pay attention to those threats except insofar as they prove, in his mind, the utter irredeemability of the Tehran regime. Iran’s rhetoric will bolster those in the White House, such as national security adviser John Bolton, that the only logical US policy towards Iran is regime change.

One major world power, Russia, has not taken part in the lobbying campaign despite being the most significant foreign actor in the region. Moscow has made clear that it is happy with the current agreement — Russia and China are the two non-Western signatories to the accord with Iran — and will maintain its compliance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must, in fact, be enjoying the show because either way he comes out on top: With Trump threatening to pull out of the agreement and Europe advocating for renegotiating it, Moscow will solidify itself as Tehran’s only powerful friend and other regional actors cannot afford to alienate the Russians.

In his news conference with Macron, Trump said that “nobody knows what I am going to do” on May 12, suggesting that he is open to suasion. I suspect that Trump knows very well what he will do but for a man who loves being the centre of attention, the recent weeks must certainly have been fun.