With an agreement that increasingly resembles the Grand Bargain that former President Barack Obama once offered Iran, French President Emmanuel Macron presented his American counterpart Donald Trump with “a save-face exit”, should Trump decide to extend — for the fourth time since his election — a waiver for many of the sanctions America imposes on Iran, in line with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
In the on-background briefing that preceded Macron’s visit to Washington, senior US administration officials did not mention Iran as one of the main items on the agenda of talks between Trump and his French visitor, even if they had mentioned Syria.
Over the past three months, Washington has been engaged in discussions with its three major European allies — France, Britain and Germany — over the possibility of amending JCPOA, upon Trump’s request. America has identified three areas that it said wanted to see changed in the Iran deal. The first is to impose an immediate freeze on all of Iran’s experiments on ballistic missiles. The second is to scrap the “sunset clauses,” that is, those articles of JCPOA that expire over the coming eight to 12 years and will therefore free Iran of any restrictions on its enrichment of uranium. The third request is for Tehran to allow sudden inspections of Iranian sites where America, or its allies, suspect nuclear experiments or storing of nuclear material.
Word in Washington has it that the Europeans think the deal with Iran is good enough, and have been reluctant in signing off on any American amendments that might kill JCPOA. Europeans have therefore tried to stall and offer some window-dressing amendments that would calm down Trump, while at the same time not infuriate Iran.
Because American-European talks over amending the Iran deal have gone nowhere, senior US officials said that there was nothing the two presidents, Trump and Macron, could discuss the Iran deal. Only because Macron publicly insisted that he planned to convince Trump to stay in the deal and because Trump thinks that Macron is one of his best international allies, the American president played nice by suggesting that in the one-on-one meeting between them at the Oval Office, he would be open to listening to Macron’s ideas on the deal.
Macron, for his part, did not wish to appear as if he was the man obstructing Trump’s agenda. The French president, therefore, came up with a solution that he seems to think could keep both Trump and Iran happy.
According to reports from the Trump-Macron meeting, the French president is now proposing that the world expand its deal with Iran. Instead of killing or amending JCPOA, Macron wants to build on it and incorporate Iran into a bigger regional settlement that would include putting an end to the brutal wars in Syria and Yemen.
In May of 2012, when the international group then known as P5+1 held a round of talks with Iran in Baghdad, Iranian officials surprised their counterparts by asking — unprompted and in the middle of the nuclear talks –: “What about Syria?” P5+1 officials were taken by surprise and told the Iranians that world capitals had authorized their delegations to discuss Iran’s nuclear activity only.
Eventually, and to extricate Iran’s nuclear issue out of the region’s complicated problems in which Iran is involved, the Obama administration and Tehran agreed to restrict nuclear talks to nuclear issues exclusively, for the sake of giving the nuclear deal greater chances of success.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry made headlines by shaking hands with and meeting his Iranian counterpart Jawad Zarif, and as the international group came closer to sealing the deal with Iran, both Iranian and American officials maintained their aggressive statements on other issues. In more serious conversations, however, Obama often said that he hoped a nuclear deal with Iran would generate enough goodwill that could rebuild trust between Washington and Tehran and help solve other issues in the region.
But by the time Obama left office, America and Iran had only singed airplane sale contracts worth $25 billion. Everything else, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Bahrain, remained points of contention between the Washington and Tehran. With Trump becoming president, America walked back whatever positive energy it had accumulated with Iran, as the new president vowed to scrap the nuclear deal wholesale. But such a step might prompt Iran to resume uranium enrichment, thus trashing three years of talks and diplomacy.
Unlike Trump, who seems to be catering to his anti-Iran constituents, the base of European leaders now seems amicable toward keeping the deal, especially with multi-billion dollar airplane, car and oil contracts that the Europeans — first and foremost France — have inked with Iran.
To save France’s big money contracts with Iran, and to keep America in the deal, Macron came up with the idea of broadening the deal’s scope in order to give any rounds of renegotiation some wiggle room. Would Iran trade its ballistic missiles program for the world letting Assad stay in power? Would Iran trade the deal’s sunset clauses for recognizing its “security concerns in the region,” the region that Zarif has repeatedly called the Greater Persian Gulf that he said includes — in addition to the known Gulf — the Red Sea basin and the Eastern Mediterranean?
Throwing in more elements on the table might help preserve JCPOA, but they might also infuriate other players in the region, first and foremost anti-Iran Gulf countries, and Turkey, which has been at odds with Paris for some time now over the French role in supporting armed Kurdish groups — which Ankara deem terrorist — in northern Syria. Macron thinks a bigger bargain with Iran might make things easier, but — judging by Obama’s experience — bigger was not better. Macron seems to have come up with his maneuver off the cuff. His ideas for keeping America in the Iran deal might require much more than a few improvised suggestions.