As if the upcoming nuclear summit with North Korea, the latest U.S. intervention in Syria, and President Trump’s controversial new national security team weren’t generating enough drama, the next few weeks could also seal the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.
Every three months since taking office, Trump has reluctantly extended what he has called the “worst deal ever,” but in January, he set a May 12 deadline for Congress and European allies to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw”—meaning that the U.S.
will reimpose the sanctions lifted under the agreement. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are visiting Trump next week and will attempt to persuade him to stay in the agreement.
While it’s generally agreed that Iran is in compliance with the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the U.S. administration has problems with it. Among its complaints are the fact that the agreement does little to address Iran’s ballistic missile program or wider regional activities and that there are too many restrictions on sites that can be accessed by international nuclear inspectors. Britain, France, and Germany have proposed new sanctions on Iran’s missiles and over its role in the war in Syria, meant to assuage Trump’s concerns, and the EU as a whole is reportedly getting closer to signing on. (The EU is a signatory of the JCPOA along with Iran, the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany.) It may also be possible to push for more access for inspectors within the existing framework of the deal. Iran, along with China and Russia, will no doubt object to these measures, but they’re unlikely to pull out of the deal completely.
A tougher nut to crack will be the controversial “sunset provisions,” the time limits on some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. The U.S. wants Europe to agree in advance to reimpose sanctions if Iran takes actions that aren’t permitted now under the deal but will be after 10 or 11 years. Obviously, none of the parties to the JCPOA want to see Iran simply start all its centrifuges spinning the moment the deadline passes, but the Europeans worry that new measures prohibiting those future actions would violate the deal itself. As Ilan Goldenberg and Elizabeth Rosenberg argue in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the obvious solution for this is to draft a new agreement over the next few years that gives Iran incentives to maintain the terms of the JCPOA, but that won’t happen in time for Trump’s deadline. Goldenberg, a former State Department staffer now at the Center for a New American Security, told me that a more realistic scenario would be for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would reimpose sanctions if Iran takes advantage of the sunset provisions and assumes that Europe would simply not complain too much about it. This might be enough to keep Iran in compliance.
“What deal supporters want in exchange for bending on these issues is some guarantee from the president that the drama will end, that the deal will be stable, and we won’t be dealing with this again in July and September,” Goldenberg told me. The uncertainty has been having an impact: Many foreign companies have been reluctant to invest in Iran for fear that the deal will collapse and the sanctions will be reimposed—one reason why the country hasn’t really seen the economic benefits it hoped for over the past three years since the agreement.
But European leaders also have a thin line to walk to keep the deal together: go too far toward placating Trump and they risk pushing Iran too far. “If Iran sees mounting sanctions, a deteriorating regional picture vis-à-vis the West, and also no firm guarantees that the president will uphold the deal, it will make it incredibly difficult for the Iranian leadership to accept going forward,” says Ellie Geranmayeh, who studies the Europe-Iran relationship at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Macron’s visit, the first formal state visit of Trump’s presidency, is probably the important one to watch next week, given that he has a much better personal relationship with Trump as well as his own ambitions to be a global leader on national security issues. There’s also been speculation over the past week that the French and British participation in the recent strikes against Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria may have built up some trust in the strained relationship between Trump and the Europeans. “In the U.S. debate, the Europeans are often said to be too soft on Iran,” says Geranmayeh. “Certainly Europe can make the argument that with these strikes they’ve shown a unified position with the United States and that actually we’re willing to put skin in the game to confront Iran on regional issues.” Macron may have undermined this trust a bit with remarks suggesting he had convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, a claim he later walked back after the White House denied it.
Of course, the notion that Macron (or Merkel) can convince Trump that Europe is doing enough to address his criticisms of the deal assumes that he’s actually serious about trying to “fix” it and isn’t simply hell-bent on tearing it apart. Trump’s new national security appointees are not encouraging on that front. John Bolton was crafting memos for Trump on how to withdraw from the deal before he was even working for Trump. The president specifically mentioned his differences with Rex Tillerson over the Iran deal in his statement on replacing him with Mike Pompeo—suggesting that the president and the CIA director are more in line on the issue.
Geranmayeh says that if there are “clear signals” that Trump can’t be satisfied, plan B is likely to involve offering “a package to Iran to give it certain incentives to keep it in its obligations.” This is far from ideal—the JCPOA is designed around U.S. involvement—but if all else fails, the Europeans may try to convince Iran that it’s worth continuing a limited version of the deal in hopes that the U.S. might eventually rejoin either under a different president or later in the Trump presidency. (Given some of the president’s recent statements on other agreements, that possibility might not be as ridiculous as it sounds.)
Goldenberg says the uncertainty around Trump’s intentions means the French are “going to want to push hard, but not too hard. They don’t want to set their president up for failure that could have profound impact on the U.S.-France relationship.”
For all the talk of the breakdown in trans-Atlantic relations under Trump, European leaders—Macron in particular—have shown a willingness to maintain the relationship and meet the president halfway when possible. The question on the Iran deal is whether Trump is willing to take yes for an answer.