French President Emmanuel Macron appears to be performing a delicate balancing act of addressing US President Donald J. Trump’s dissatisfaction with the Iran nuclear deal while seeking to keep the multilateral agreement intact.
Trump has been crystal clear since his presidential campaign that he views the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the Iran nuclear deal—as a “bad deal.” He has criticized it as insufficient and unable to deny Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Further, he says it does not address Iran’s regional activities or curb its ballistic missile program. Trump has also made clear he wants a more effective mechanism to do all of the above.
On January 12, although Trump once again waived sanctions against Iran as part of the US commitment to the JCPOA, he threatened he would not do so again absent an agreement to “[fix] significant flaws in the deal,” effectively challenging European partners to sharpen the deal or risk the United States jeopardizing the future of the entire agreement.
Efforts in recent months by key European partners—in particular France, the United Kingdom, and Germany—to develop a package of actions to augment the JCPOA and address what they all can agree are destabilizing Iranian behaviors, signal that irrespective of whether they previously thought the JCPOA needed improvement, they accepted and have taken steps to meet Trump’s challenge.
On April 24, following a meeting with Trump at the White House, Macron made it clear that he traveled to Washington with a new plan. Without knowing the details of this proposal—if there are any yet—it appears the four pillars Macron described respond to Trump’s requests for improvement.
The four pillars include: maintaining the JCPOA, which Macron said will curb Iranian nuclear activity until 2025; ensuring Iran is unable to resume its nuclear program thereafter; curbing Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation across the Middle East; and containing Iran’s destabilizing activities through political resolutions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Importantly, these pillars allude to the necessity of non-military as well as non-monetary tools. Each depends on multilateral cooperation. The United States can unilaterally impose a range of costs on Iran for illicit weapons shipments or ballistic missile proliferation in the near-term. Those costs will be far higher, however, if a coalition of like-minded partners is willing to work toward the same aim. This pressure will be more effective, in particular in the medium- to long-term, if coupled with a multilateral effort that involves negotiation with Iran.
Macron’s fourth pillar—working with regional actors, including Iran, Russia, and Turkey, to identify political solutions for Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—acknowledges regional actors must be involved in and take some responsibility for stabilizing their own neighborhood. Although the United States may balk at negotiations that directly involve Iran, perhaps this element of Macron’s proposal could serve as the carrot to Trump’s stick.
Despite praise for Macron and their dialogue following the White House meeting, Trump clearly stated that he will keep the world guessing which way he will rule on sanctions relief for Iran on May 12. What happens over the next three weeks will be critical.
It remains to be seen how German Chancellor Angela Merkel will approach her meeting with Trump at the White House on April 27. Meanwhile, discussions between the United States and regional partners with stakes in the Iran deal, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, are likely to continue until May 12 as well.
Meaningful pressure—whether military, political, or economic—against the Iranian regime must be multilateral. Even Trump seems to understand that the United States will be less effective alone.
Ultimately, if Trump decides not to waive sanctions and pulls out of the nuclear deal, not only will he alienate allies and partners the United States needs to exert any pressure on the Iranian regime—among other foreign policy priorities—but concerned parties will once again need to worry about preventing a renewal of Iran’s nuclear program, and any growing semblance of a coalition to counter Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation or contain its regional ambitions is likely to evaporate more quickly than it has come together.
Rachel Brandenburg is director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative.