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As Macron arrives to meet Trump, fate of Iran nuclear deal is front and center

Ahead of the White House State Dinner, The Post's James McAuley explains how French President Emmanuel Macron's rapport with President Trump defies predictions. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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The last time they met face to face, at the United Nations in September, French President Emmanuel Macron was puzzled when President Trump and his delegation seemed to have no agenda, carried no papers and took no notes.

“It was like a good discussion with a buddy in a bar,” a French official recalled. “At the end, you don’t know exactly what it means.” Now that Trump has been in office longer, the official mused, “maybe the process is different.”

Macron arrives here Monday, on the first official state visit Trump has hosted for any leader, with a clear agenda. Iran is at the top of a to-do list that includes trade, climate change, ­Russia, North Korea and counterterrorism.

After the U.S.-French-British attack on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities this month, Macron is also seeking reassurance that Trump will not follow through with his pledge for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

Scenes from Trump’s second year in office

Jan. 8, 2019 | President Trump speaks on television from the Oval Office during a national address on border security on the 18th day of the partial government shutdown. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“The day we finish this war against ISIS, if we leave . . . we will leave the floor to the Iranian regime” and to Assad, Macron told “Fox News Sunday,” using an acronym for the Islamic State. “They will prepare the new war. They will fuel the new terrorists.”

But Iran’s activities in Syria are overshadowed by the dispute about the nuclear agreement that the United States and five other countries signed with Iran in 2015. Trump has called it a bad deal and said the United States will withdraw unless it is “fixed.” Signatories France, Britain and Germany vehemently disagree, saying there can be no changes to the agreement, and have pledged they will not follow Trump’s lead.

The U.S. decision deadline is May 12. Failure to work out a compromise between the United States and its closest European allies that will keep the nuclear accord alive could lead to the most significant transatlantic breach in decades.

Iran nuclear deal: What you need to know

Enter Macron. By consensus among his counterparts in Europe, if there is accommodation to be reached with Trump on Iran, he is the man to close the deal.

Senior French, British and German officials have been negotiating for months with a State Department team led by Brian Hook, director of policy planning, to come up with a way to meet Trump’s demands without altering the deal itself or driving the other signatories — Russia, China and, of course, Iran — to cry foul.

Speaking Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Tehran would be likely to resume and accelerate its “nuclear activities” if the United States were to pull out of the accord. Iran, Zarif said, has never intended to develop nuclear weapons, and never will. The United States, not Iran, has violated the deal, he said.

According to officials involved in the U.S.-European talks, significant progress has been made on addressing concerns about the deal’s sunset clauses, its verification rules, and the absence of restrictions on Iranian ballistic missile testing and development, as well as new measures to counter Iran’s “malign” activities in Syria and beyond in the Middle East. Four documents have been drafted that they believe are responsive to Trump’s criticisms.

An overall declaration and three sub-texts are to outline their joint understanding that other international conventions will prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons beyond restrictions that expire in the next decade; push the International Atomic Energy Agency to expand its monitoring; and promise strict sanctions if Iran moves forward with intercontinental ballistic missile development.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, was a harsh critic of the deal when it was signed and spoke openly about bombing Iran’s nuclear installations. But at his confirmation hearing last week, Pompeo assured lawmakers that “there is no doubt that this administration’s policy, and my view, is that the solution to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, to finding ourselves in the same place we are in North Korea in Iran, is through diplomacy.” He also agreed with the Europeans and the IAEA that Iran has so far complied with the terms of the deal.

“I am confident that the issue will be discussed at great length” during Trump’s upcoming meetings with European leaders, including a one-day visit here by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, following Macron’s departure late Wednesday, Pompeo said. “It’s important to them, and I know they’ll raise their hopes and concerns.”

In his interview with Fox, Macron acknowledged that the nuclear deal was not perfect.

“But what do you have for a better option?” he asked. “I don’t see it.”

Neither Macron nor the White House expects a final decision by Trump during the French president’s visit, officials from both countries said. For their part, the Europeans worry that the mercurial U.S. president, who railed against the deal during his presidential campaign and has continued to do so, will ultimately decide to trash it even if his State Department recommends otherwise.

But Macron has been working toward this moment for months. “What I told him was not to tear up the deal,” he told journalists in October.

Macron seems to crack the Trump code

“It’s a very long shot, but it’s the only one we have,” François Heisbourg, a former French presidential adviser on defense and national security, said of the Macron offensive. “You might as well try.”

The special bond that seems to have developed between the 71-year-old American president and Macron, a 40-year-old political novice elected just a year ago, is no accident. While Merkel is clearly turned off by Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Parliament and population have indicated they don’t even want him to visit, Macron has gone far out of his way to cultivate him.

Their first handshake, a virtual arm-wrestle at an international meeting in Germany in June, produced a globally viral video. “He is a specialist,” Macron said on Fox, referring to Trump’s apparent attempt at establishing physical dominance by forcibly yanking Macron’s hand toward his own body. “Seeing [Japanese] Prime Minister Abe and some of the different victims, I resisted.” It was, he said, laughing, a “friendly moment. Don’t worry.”

In July, Macron invited Trump to Bastille Day in Paris, treated him as a senior statesman and impressed him with a front-row seat at a massive military parade that Trump now plans to emulate in Washington this fall. In addition to the September U.N. meeting, the two have near-weekly telephone conversations.

“It’s Macron’s nature,” said William Drozdiak, author of “Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West” and an upcoming biography of the French president. “He walks into a room, sees a chair and tries to seduce it.”

“He looks at Trump and says, ‘Okay, we’ve got our interests, and the best way of securing them is for me to flatter this guy, pat him on the back and get along with him so that I can manipulate him,’ ” Drozdiak said. Macron is “the ultimate pragmatist . . . that’s why he’s the only Western leader now with an open dialogue to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” as well as Trump.

The French look down their noses at media descriptions of a “bromance” between the French and U.S. presidents. “Macron is not the friend of Trump,” said the French official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the relationship. “We don’t believe all this stuff about bromance, that they’re buddies.”

“Macron is doing this because he knows that he has to be close to our closest ally, the president of the most powerful country in the world. It’s in our interest to have a good relationship. He doesn’t go as a friend,” the official said.

The length and depth of the U.S.-French relationship will be spotlighted during the visit, an extravaganza of activities clearly designed to match Trump’s reception in Paris last summer. After his midday Monday arrival, Macron and his wife will travel by helicopter with the Trumps to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home about 15 miles south of Washington, for dinner, weather permitting, on the broad terrace overlooking the Potomac River.

“President Trump is eager to host” the Macrons at Mount Vernon, “as he remembers fondly the dinner [Macron] hosted at the Eiffel Tower on the eve of Bastille Day” for Trump and the first lady, said a senior administration official who briefed reporters Friday on the visit, on a White House-imposed condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday morning, Trump and Macron will hold a one-on-one meeting, followed by expanded talks with their delegations. U.S. officials will include Vice President Pence, the treasury, defense and commerce secretaries, the acting secretary of state, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Trump national security adviser John Bolton, and economic adviser Larry Kudlow.

Macron will attend a State Department lunch hosted by Pence and a state dinner at the White House on Tuesday.

He addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday morning, the anniversary of a 1960 address there by former French president Charles de Gaulle. In the afternoon, after a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, he will hold a town hall meeting with students at George Washington University, followed by a solo news conference before his departure.

On Syria, the two leaders will try to develop a joint response to kick in if Assad persists in using chemical weapons. Trump is expected to press Macron — as he has other allies and partners — to increase the French contribution to Syrian stabilization, while the French leader is seeking clarity on Trump’s plans for U.S. troop withdrawal and an overall U.S. strategy, including toward Iran. Europe’s focus is on preventing another wave of Middle Eastern migrants, a phenomenon that has already pushed the European political center toward the right.

The visit is also an “opportunity to start forging a more unified front” toward Chinese economic expansion, the administration official said, as well as an agreed approach to Putin, whom Macron will visit next month in St. Petersburg.

On Thursday, Macron and Merkel met in Berlin to discuss their shared concerns about Trump’s trade policies, and particularly the May 1 U.S. deadline for imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The European Union is preparing a proposal, for presentation to Trump before the deadline, to head off the levies.

“I’m an easy guy. I’m very simple. I’m straightforward,” Macron said on Fox. “It’s too complicated if you make war on everybody. You make trade war on China, trade war against Europe. War in Syria. War against Iran. Come on, it doesn’t work. You need allies. We are the ally.”

On each issue of the agenda, Macron’s overall goal is to pull the United States closer to Europe, something his partners on the continent believe he is uniquely situated to do.

After Merkel first met Trump here early last year, the chancellor returned to Germany aghast at what she saw as the new U.S. president’s disregard for the oldest U.S. allies and his apparent retreat from global leadership. In public speeches and private meetings, she told the French, British and others that perhaps it was time for Europe to take “our fate into our own hands.”

But “as they started analyzing” what that would mean in security and other terms, “it just didn’t compute,” Drozdiak said. “Their conclusion was, you’ve got to keep the U.S. engaged.”

James McAuley in Paris and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed
to this report.