We would be foolhardy to predict what President Trump might do on May 12, when the deadline comes up to extend the waiver on nuclear sanctions against Iran. Trump’s views change day to day, and his pronouncements are so lacking in content that they can be read however one is inclined. However, for those dreading the possibility of the United States exiting the Iran deal, as well as facing isolation from its allies and acquiring the reputation as altogether unreliable in nuclear nonproliferation while having no backup plan, there is reason for cautious optimism.
Taking a step back, French President Emmanuel Macron is selling Trump on Trump’s plan. In October, Trump declared that he was prepared to leave the deal unless the sunset clause was removed, inspection procedures were strengthened and Iran’s missile program was addressed. Macron cleverly adopted these three and added one of his own. At the White House, Macron explained:
We therefore wish, from now on, to work on a new deal with Iran. What we need — and I believe that on that, our discussions allowed us to shed light on our convergence of views — is that we need to cover four topics.
The first one is to block any nuclear activity of Iran until 2025. This was feasible thanks to the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. The second is to make sure that, in the long run, there is no nuclear Iranian activity. The third fundamental topic is to be able to put an end to the ballistic activities of Iran in the region. And the fourth one is to generate the conditions for a solution — a political solution to contain Iran in the region — in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, and in Lebanon.
Trump naturally would be pleased to hear his own demands read back to him. After Macron explained in answer to a question that a new deal would come on top of the existing deal, Trump had this word-salad response:
But there is a chance — and nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th, although, Mr. President, you have a pretty good idea — but we’ll see. But we’ll see also, if I do what some people expect, whether or not it will be possible to do a new deal with solid foundations. Because this a deal with decayed foundations. It’s a bad deal. It’s a bad structure. It’s falling down. Should have never, ever been made. I blame Congress. I blame a lot of people for it. But it should have never been made, and we’re going to see what happens on the 12th.
Somewhere in there is the potential for a “new deal” (Macron’s construction) that wouldn’t require exiting the JCPOA.
Let’s be clear on several points.
First, for two of Trump’s goals — to block Iran’s ballistic missile program and extend the deal — it makes no sense to exit the deal. Since Iran’s ballistic missile program is not covered by the current Iran deal, the West could impose sanctions and/or seek a new deal while leaving the JCPOA in place. As for the sunset clause, it is entirely illogical to exit a deal early because it does not go on long enough(!).
Second, there is zero chance the Europeans leave the deal. Trump and backers of his plan have never fully explained what happens then. Do we reimpose sanctions and start punish our allies whose companies still do business there? Do we actually think there is a realistic military option?
Third, if Trump really is concerned about Iranian regional aggression (as Macron is, evidenced by his inclusion of this item as his fourth pillar), there is nothing that would suggest withdrawing from the JCPOA would help matters. Last October, the very first item Trump identified on his list of to-do items for a new Iran policy was “to work with our allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.” However, if anything, Trump has moved backward on this point, signaling he is willing to cede Syria to Iran and its ally Russia. It is hard to imagine that leaving the JCPOA and creating a major rift with allies will improve our ability to check Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.
“The more dangerous issue relates to what the Iranians are doing in the region. They are becoming more risk averse,” longtime Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross told me. He added: “They are embedding themselves in Syria, they are providing more to the Houthis, they are anxious for us to leave the region — an objective they share with the Russians. If we are going to counter malign activities of Iran in the region — one of the pillars of the policy — walking away from the JCPOA will make that harder because we will walk away alone and will trigger a breach with the Europeans. Under those circumstances, they will not put any pressure on the Iranians for their regional behaviors.”
In sum, it is anyone’s guess (including Trump’s) what Trump will do in May. However, Trump likes being liked, and his international BFF Macron will like him even more if he stays in the deal. (That simple-minded formulation may actually be closer to Trump’s internal thought process than you’d think.) Ross said that “based on the president’s comments after seeing Macron, it is possible we will not walk away. I hope that is the case because we have much more leverage when the Europeans are with us, and there is the chance that we can start with them to create an expectation that limitations beyond 2030 make sense.” And maybe as a reward, Macron could throw him another parade.