For the U.S.'s key European allies, the 2015 agreement, forged after months of concerted diplomacy, remains the best way to check Iran's nuclear ambitions and prevent a North Korea-style crisis from erupting in the Middle East. They also see its preservation as a test of the transatlantic relationship. That is the message Macron may deliver before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely reiterate the point when she arrives in Washington later in the week.
For months, British, German and French officials have discussed possible “fixes” to the existing agreement with the Trump administration. At a White House news conference, Macron outlined some of the key measures being discussed, including proposals to intensify sanctions over Iran's ballistic missile program and extend limitations on its nuclear program beyond 2030.
On Tuesday, Trump did not give the impression he was heeding the European entreaties. In public sessions alongside Macron, Trump denounced the existing deal as “ridiculous,” “terrible” and “insane,” declaring it was built on “rotten” foundations. He also threatened Iran would pay “a big price” should it restart its nuclear program if the deal collapses.
In the run-up to Macron's visit, the consensus seemed to be the deal was in fact doomed. Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program, a move that could prompt the nuclear agreement to collapse. The appointments of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, both vehement anti-Iran hawks, as national security adviser and secretary of state, respectively, suggested a new era of confrontation was at hand.
“The decision to leave is pretty much made,” said a person familiar with the administration's thinking on Iran to CNN. In the person's view, the White House is also engaging in a game of brinkmanship. The administration has “positioned itself that way, but it's keeping an eye on the possibility of staying should the Europeans be able to extract concessions from Iran,” the person said.
“Trump essentially is taking hostage something the Europeans value, threatening to kill the agreement unless they pay him ransom. So France, Germany, and the U.K. have been valiantly seeking a way out of the crisis Trump manufactured, attempting to accommodate the president’s demands while staying true to their own obligations,” wrote Robert Malley and Colin Kahl, two former Obama administration officials who helped negotiate the deal. “They are doing so not because they agree that the deal is in urgent need of repair. They don’t. Rather, they are rightly worried that Trump will make an ideologically inspired and fact-free decision to tear it down, with profoundly negative consequences for their national security interests.”
Even then, as the Atlantic Council's Barbara Slavin noted, the Europeans would have to turn around and somehow attempt to sweeten the deal for Tehran, as well. “If Europe hopes that its premier diplomatic achievement can survive, it also needs to make some gestures to Iran, not simply agree to new sanctions connected to Iran’s missile program and regional interventions,” Slavin wrote.
It could simply become too complicated a problem to be worth solving. During a visit to New York this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told media that Iran would lprobably back away from the agreement if the United States reneged on its end of the bargain. He also coyly suggested Trump was about to set a dangerous precedent ahead of planned nuclear talks with North Korea.
“I think the United States doesn't want to send the message to the world that if you negotiate with the United States, the U.S. is going to come back after you had reached an agreement and tell you 'I don't like these parts of the agreement and I want them renegotiated,' " Zarif told NPR's Steve Inskeep.
So the deck is stacked against Macron's efforts this week. On Tuesday, he confidently challenged Trump's assertions on the Iran deal, stressing its importance as a vehicle for containing Iranian influence. He also ignored the U.S. president's attempts to condescend to him, appearing unruffled as Trump loudly declared he was brushing dandruff off Macron's shoulder. At the end of their joint news conference, Macron's Twitter account uploaded a close-up one of the many tight embraces shared by the duo over the past 36 hours.
Trump, on multiple occasions, has stressed how much he personally likes his French interlocutor. With Trump's emphasis on personal connection, Macron may be uniquely positioned to persuade his counterpart. “If Trump does not blow up the JCPOA on May 12,” tweeted Obama-era official Jon Wolfstahl, using the acronym for the Iran deal, “then President Macron will have pulled a rabbit out of his hat and shown that personal relations with Trump can change his mind and policy decisions.”
“Macron has great confidence in his ability to win people over,” Harvard scholar and France expert Arthur Goldhammer told Slate's Isaac Chotiner. “He thinks that he’s very persuasive. He’s always made use of older powerful figures in his own career and I think he views Trump in the same way, as someone who might be useful and who can be approached in no other way but through flattery.”
The weeks ahead will prove whether the French president's most significant charm offensive yet actually worked.