by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
In a joint press conference during a much anticipated state visit to Washington, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that he and Donald Trump “had very frank discussions” on the future of the Iran nuclear deal and that he intended to work with the U.S. president “on a new deal with Iran.”
Trump did not commit to preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), describing it as “a deal with decayed foundations” that is “falling down.” He told reporters that they will need “to see what happens on the 12th,” referring to the May 12 deadline for the renewal of critical sanctions waivers. But Macron’s intervention with Trump did seem to have some impact, with Trump expressing optimism that he and Macron “will have a great shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal.”
The French move was calculated to play to Trump’s ego, giving him the chance to supplant Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement with his own “bigger” agreement. Any success in convincing Trump to pursue diplomacy with Iran is welcome, given recent concern around the ascendency of figures such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, who have long advocated military confrontation with Iran.
Although Macron may have been able to win over Trump, his suggestion of a new deal threatens the delicate diplomatic consensus that made the JCPOA possible in the first place.
The reaction in Tehran was unambiguous. President Hassan Rouhani complained of the arrogance in Trump’s insistence on a new deal, staying, “Together with a leader of a European country they say: ‘We want to decide on an agreement reached by seven parties’. What for? With what right?”
Speaking in Brussels, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s diplomatic chief, aimed to downplay Macron’s proposed strategy and its possible effect on the consensus around the JCPOA. “On what can happen in the future we’ll see in the future, but there is one deal existing, it’s working, it needs to be preserved,” she stated.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that “We believe that no alternative exists so far” and demanded that Iran be properly included in further discussions.
That Macron’s statements sparked these unfavorable reactions from Iran, the European Union, and Russia suggests that the French have gone rogue in the course of the E3-US negotiations. Taking advantage of Germany’s domestic political turnover and the UK’s limited bandwidth to shape policy, the French have monopolized the negotiations with the United States, devising strategy with limited consultation with the other parties to the JCPOA.
Macron has cast himself as the savior of the nuclear deal, and his personal rapport with Trump does offer real hope that the agreement can be preserved. But that rapport has been used to advance a decidedly French policy towards Iran rather than a consensus policy devised among the parties to the JCPOA. This is the central flaw of the French approach. France is increasingly diverging from what is considered politically advisable or feasible in European capitals, in Moscow and Beijing, and most crucially in Tehran.
A Growing Divergence
The French proposal of an “add-on” agreement is now new. In October 2017, Iranian stakeholders themselves signaled openness to discussions on the country’s missile program. But the political circumstances in October were different. Trump “decertified” Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, a move that was widely condemned and that marked the United States as the most unfaithful party with regards to implementation. In response to Trump’s move, Europe, Russia, and China stood firmly behind Iran’s continued and verifiable compliance with JCPOA commitments.
However, Trump’s antipathy towards the deal only intensified over the subsequent months. In January, he issued an ultimatum to the Europeans to “fix” the nuclear deal, insisting on direct negotiations between the State Department and diplomats from the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom).
Meanwhile, in Iran, political pressures were rising. Economic frustrations and political infighting materialized into widespread protests, which put the Rouhani government on the defensive. Barjam, the name given to the nuclear deal in Iran, was once synonymous with a new era of expected prosperity. As the protests spread, a new media cycle redefined barjam as an epithet for unrealized economic promises.
January therefore marked the beginning of a fateful divergence. The E3 took up Trump’s ultimatum, undercutting confidence in European resolve surrounding the nuclear deal just as the perception of the deal in Iran began to shift toward the negative.
In March, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian traveled to Tehran for negotiations. The trip began poorly, with Le Drian having previewed his message to French media with the admonishment that Iran risked “exposing itself to new sanctions” if it did not compromise on aspects of its missile program. The Iranian rebuke was quick. Speaking to Iranian media prior to his meeting with Le Drian, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif lambasted the French for seeking to “appease” Trump.
Le Drian’s failed visit in March should have provided a warning to the French that their strategy was foolhardy. Even if the “new deal” approach succeeds in getting Trump onside through a combination of a tough posture with Iran and appeals to Trump’s ego, a cursory reading of Iranian newspapers reveals that the methods used to save the deal in Washington may kill the deal in Tehran. By spending outsized political capital with Trump and offering little reassurance to Iran, the French position severely undermines the ability of the Rouhani administration to shore up the political consensus around the viability and value of the Iran nuclear deal.
Iranian Position Shifts
The consequences of this imbalanced approach are becoming clear. As late as February, President Rouhani had signalled that Iran would remain in the JCPOA even in the event of an American withdrawal, so long as key economic benefits could be sustained. The new messaging from Tehran, however, could not be more different.
Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent visit to New York served as an opportunity to announce that Iran intends to “vigorously” pursue uranium enrichment in the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal from the deal. More drastically, the political debate in Iran includes serious discussions of Iranian withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which opens the door for a full Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Although Zarif and other members of the Rouhani government continue to insist that their government does not wish to seek a nuclear weapon, hardliners have pushed to make an NPT exit part of mainstream debate. The government newspaper Iran, recently ran a front page piece entitled “JCPOA: Everything or Nothing” in which “exit the NPT” was given as one of three policy options available to Iran in the face of the deal’s collapse.
In this context, Macron’s proposal to pursue a “new deal” seems horribly tone-deaf, and the French approach has rightly earned criticism from the likes of Italy, Austria, and Sweden, who are sympathetic to Iranian claims of appeasement. The French gambit will either fail in Washington due to overconfidence in Trump’s pliability or fail in Tehran due to an underappreciation of political realities.
If Macron wants to salvage his credibility as a statesman, he must now travel to Tehran. Such a visit was originally slated for earlier this year but was postponed in the aftermath of the Trump ultimatum. A visit to Tehran now would allow Macron to demonstrate to the Iranians that he considers Iran to have an equal say in the deal’s future, that he is not seeking to appease Trump, and that France welcomes Iran’s political and economic empowerment within the community of nations.
During his visit, Macron might even read a newspaper or two to gain a more acute appreciation for not just the general political environment in Iran but also the specific and unrelenting pressures being exerted on Rouhani and Zarif, the only credible interlocutors he might hope to have in his nascent diplomatic effort. No one will blame Macron for failing to tame Trump. But he will deserve considerable blame should he undermine and alienate an Iranian government that made a historic bet on dialogue and engagement.