By Joseph Ciricione
On Monday, April 23 with cameras clicking, President Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron planted an oak sapling on the White House lawn from a World War I battle site where France and the United States fought the Germans. The symbolism was inescapable, and promising as the two allies met to discuss a series of important international treaties. And yet, mere days later the tree was gone, spirited away for a quarantine period. Symbolism indeed.
In the end, the smiles, the handshakes, the grooming, the gowns, the sumptuous dinner and even the hat could not hide the grim underlying reality: the charismatic president of France had failed. He could not convince the bellicose president of the United States to keep a deal blocking Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
It had been his primary mission. Despite a series of hopeful signs during the trip, as he was about to depart America's shores, Macron melancholically reported to the press, "My view — I don't know what the president will decide — is that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons."
And so, despite a surge in last-minute lobbying from European allies,it now appears unlikely that Trump will waive (again) U.S. sanctions against Iran at the next Congressionally imposed deadline on May 12. If he does not, the U.S. will be in violation of the deal, potentially allowing Iran to slip out of its restraints.
If this happens, it will not be for a lack of trying on the part of the French president.
Typical of the Trump administration, last week's two-day visit with Macron was a roller coaster ride. Before even listening to Macron's case for keeping the Iran nuclear deal intact, Trump blurted out at a Tuesday morning press appearance: "It's insane, it's ridiculous, it should have never been made." As Macron sat silently watching, Trump called the deal "bad," "falling down" and an agreement that "should have never, ever been made." In doing so, he insulted not just the agreement and President Barack Obama who had struck it, but all of America's European allies who had labored for 12 years to bring it about.
But Trump was not done. Just days after his ownState Department reported that Iran was in full compliance with its nuclear commitments, Trump warned, "If Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid." It was a lot of saber-rattling for an agreement Trump seems determined to dissolve anyway.
European officials have been negotiating for weeks with State Department officials to try and craft a compromise that would keep deal alive. They were close enough that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford told reporters at a nuclear conference in Geneva that the U.S. was not "aiming to renegotiate [the deal] or change its terms. We are seeking a supplemental agreement." Macron visited with hopes of nailing down the agreement reached at the working levels. Trump's press comments seemed to undermine Ford's statement.
Hope returned, however, during the Tuesday afternoon press conference when Trump seemed to have edged into Macron's frame of a "bigger deal." Macron eloquently laid out the plan for Trump and expended his vision more fullybefore Congress in a powerful address Wednesday morning. The "objective is clear — Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons, not now, not in five years, not in ten years, never," he said.
The goal is not not tear up the deal, but to build upon it: "There is an existing framework. We signed it at the initiative of the United States. It is true to say this agreement may not address all concerns and every important concerns, this is true, but we should not abandon it without having something substantial and more substantial instead. France will not leave the deal… But what I want to do and what we decided together with your president is that we can work on a more comprehensive deal addressing all these concerns."
Are Macron's goals realistic? Is there a "bigger deal" that Iran, Russia, China, Europe and the United States could craft? Yes, in fact there is. And the way to get to it is to pretty much follow the path Macron outlined. A new, comprehensive deal could be built on Macron's four main pillars: continue the existing agreement with all its limits on Iran, reach agreement on "post 2025, to ensure no nuclear activity [in Iran]," address Iranian regional military adventurism and limit Iran's ballistic missile activities.
Left unstated, and wisely so, is that this would also require new negotiations with Iran and new compromises. Macron may have skipped over that key detail to try to close the sale: "We have to start working together now to build this comprehensive deal. We can work together to build [it] because it addresses [both] our concerns."
Trump seems to be opting out of the "we," even when it includes America's closest allies. If Macron's pessimistic assessment at the end of his trip is correct, German Chancellor Angela Merkel could not budge Trump during her visit last Friday. The two also huddled by phone with British Prime Minister Theresa May after their frustrated visits trying to put together one last push.
Importantly, for the Europeans this is a least as much about preventing the U.S. from launching another devastating war in the Middle East as it is about Iran. They fear that once Trump collapses the restraints, Iran will restart its nuclear program in earnest and Trump or Israel — without sanctions or allies to contain Iran — might lash out with military strikes.
Adding to the tension is the fact that even if Trump does waive the sanctions — or attempts to finesse the blame for the deal's collapse by reimposing sanctions but not formally leaving the agreement — he preserves the deal for only a few more months before hitting yet another waiver deadline.
Macron, Merkel, May and the entire European Union understandably want to end this state of "is the deal alive or dead?" They want to get the United States to fully implement its commitment to give Iran the economic benefits the deal promised — in exchange for which they have destroyed most of their nuclear capability and accepted tough inspections and limitations.
Rubbing salt in the wound, Trump bragged on "Fox and Friends" that he had changed Macron's thinking, not the other way around. He said Macron "is viewing, I believe, Iran a lot differently than he did before he walked into the Oval Office."
There is still a chance the anti-nuclear barrier could survive. There is strong support within the ranks of the administration and among some senior leaders for keeping the accord. "I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat," Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Congress on April 26, "So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in."
It appears more likely, however, that National Security Advisor John Bolton and newly-confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will goad Trump into betraying Macron and plunging a knife into the Iran agreement. With these two Iran hawks having recently replaced moderates like H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, Mattis is the lone cabinet voice defending the arrangement. And after Macron and Merkel's visits, Bolton and Pompeo will have two full weeks to operationalize their boss's worst impulses.
But reading Trump's mind on this or any other issue is a fool's game. Ultimately, we will not know if the deal is alive or dead until Trump opens the box. Or, perhaps more likely, tweets.
Joseph Cirincione is an MSNBC nuclear security expert, president of Ploughshares Fund and author of "Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.:
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