Macron's Pitch to Trump on New Iran Deal Surprises EU Allies

(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing the limits of international diplomacy, as his last-ditch appeal to salvage the Iran nuclear deal wrong-footed European allies and was met with intransigence by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Macron, who has sought to cultivate a personal bond with Trump, made his Iran pitch the centerpiece of his visit to the White House: If the U.S. preserved the existing nuclear accord, that could serve as the cornerstone of a new, expanded deal that would address the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program and destabilizing behavior across the Middle East.

Macron's Pitch to Trump on New Iran Deal Surprises EU Allies

That case ran headlong into Trump’s competing instincts on foreign policy and caught fellow European powers off guard. Coordination within the European Union took place before Macron left for Washington, but once there the French president introduced elements that hadn’t been discussed in advance, according to two EU officials. The French will need to brief the rest of the EU on those issues, said the officials, who asked not to be named discussing strategy.

A lack of European coordination may be a price worth paying if the U.S. president can be persuaded to stick to the Iran accord. Trump prizes his reputation as a deal maker, and is eager to score major foreign policy wins, yet he remains deeply skeptical of preserving the 2015 agreement with Tehran.

“It sounded to me like he wants to be half-pregnant -- that he wants to withdraw from the deal but sustain the deal and add something on top of the deal so that it constrains the Iranians more,” Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Trump’s opposition. “The challenge with all of this is the president’s objection to the deal is visceral, not intellectual.”

Macron’s Challenge

Macron’s hope is to stave off an American withdrawal next month from the six-party agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The French leader sought to tempt his American counterpart with the promise of future diplomacy that would not only repair flaws Trump perceives in the original agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration, but resolve a range of security headaches across the Middle East.

Trump seemed at least somewhat interested in Macron’s blueprint, calling it a “new deal” with “solid foundations.” Teams of American negotiators have been working with European allies for weeks on a new accord along the lines of what Macron laid out.

James Slack, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman, said the U.K. was coordinating closely with its allies “on how to address the range of challenges Iran poses in the Middle East including those President Macron proposed a new deal might cover.”

Germany gave a guarded response, saying that upholding the nuclear accord with Iran remains the priority even as Macron floats a broader regional solution. “One has to take a closer look at this proposal,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Rainer Breul told reporters in Berlin. “A new nuclear accord isn’t on the agenda.”

For Britain and Germany as with Macron, the biggest challenge may be the absence of any guarantee that Trump will accept the result of this collaboration. Even alongside Macron, he again expressed steadfast opposition to the existing agreement, the preservation of which other world leaders and diplomats insist is essential if there is to be further negotiation with Iran. Trump must decide by May 12 whether to continue to waive U.S. sanctions lifted under the accord.

Within minutes of the two leaders sitting down in the Oval Office, Trump ridiculed the existing agreement as “terrible,” “insane,” and “ridiculous.” One-on-one talks seemed to do little to change his mind. Trump went on to threaten Iran with “a price like few countries have ever paid” if the Tehran government restarted their nuclear program in response to an American withdrawal from the accord.

At a news conference, Macron offered a portrait of a four-part “new accord” with Iran. The French president would combine the existing nuclear agreement with curbs on Iran’s nuclear program after 2025, a halt to its ballistic missile development and constraints on its regional influence.

The apparent contradiction exposed the limitations of the French leader’s gambit as he sought to influence an American president who has governed by gut instinct and who is predisposed to ending a pact he regularly ridiculed on the campaign trail.

‘Potent Charm Offensive’

There are still some grounds for optimism that Macron can thread that needle, convincing Trump to preserve the existing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as American and European negotiators work on a series of side deals. Indications that the U.S. and France at least made advances on some of the issues Trump has raised were reasons for optimism, James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview.

“Trump’s repeated use of the word ‘flexibility’ or ‘flexible’ is the code word here," Jeffrey said. “But until he sees a final agreement from the three European countries, he’s clearly not going to commit.”

Indeed, U.S. and European officials said they’ve made more progress than expected in their quiet discussions about coming up with proposals that would meet Trump’s demands to contain Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom Macron coordinated on policy last week, is due to meet with Trump in Washington on Friday.

All the same, there are no guarantees of success as Trump regroups with his hawkish new foreign policy team. Mike Pompeo, the CIA director expected to be confirmed as the next Secretary of State later this week, and National Security Adviser John Bolton have both publicly criticized the Iran agreement in the past. And Trump has shown a repeated willingness to move decisively toward his initial policy inclinations -- particularly when he senses others are trying to slow walk him from a potentially disruptive decision.

Heightened Drama

“It is very plausible that some kind of contrivance is made to continue the U.S.-European negotiation and maybe the administration finds a way to kind of further heighten the drama -- some way to refine the ultimatum," said Jarrett Blanc, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is also certainly possible that Trump wakes up in a bad mood on May 11 and there’s a decision to withdraw.”

Upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might be weighing heavily on Trump -- and leave him more inclined to preserve the agreement. A U.S. withdrawal could undermine American credibility at the negotiating table as it seeks denuclearization in another hot zone.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanded that the U.S. show the world whether it was prepared to respect its commitments.

“You said you’re making decisions with a European leader over a seven-party deal. Who allowed you to?” Rouhani was quoted as saying by state-run Iranian Students News Agency. “First go and respect what you have signed, what your former president and foreign minister have said, then start bringing up new issues.”

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