Did French President Emmanuel Macron successfully convince President Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal? It’s impossible to say—but judging by their joint press conference Tuesday, it seems like Macron thinks he did.
Trump repeated his standard litany of attacks on the deal, saying it “should have never been made” but also held open the possibility of “doing something” to improve the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Referring to the May 12 certification deadline, by which Trump says he will pull the U.S. out of the agreement unless European countries take steps to address what he sees as its flaws, Trump said, “nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th, although Mr. President”—meaning Macron—“you have a pretty good idea.”
This implies that Trump has made his intentions known to Macron, and that’s probably good news for the deal’s survival given that Macron seemed optimistic that Tuesday’s discussion had led to a “convergence of views.” He went as far as to call this a “new deal with Iran,” adding, “we have a disagreement regarding the JCPOA, but I think we are overcoming it by deciding to work towards a deal, an overall deal.”
It seems unlikely Macron would speak so confidently, and go so far to portray himself as in sync with Trump on larger Middle East issues, if he had the impression that Trump was hell-bent on blowing the deal up, no matter what. After today’s remarks, if the U.S. does pull out of the deal next month, it would be much worse politically for Macron back in France, where Trump is deeply unpopular, and detract from whatever political capital he has left with the Iranians. Of course, this doesn’t mean Trump won’t still blow up the JCPOA. He has a habit of taking one position in meetings and then quickly reversing it. But he did seem to like what the French president was telling him.
Macron suggested that while preserving the JCPOA and its restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity until 2025, further measures could be taken to address Iran’s nuclear activity indefinitely, as well as its ballistic missile program and its wider range of activities in the Middle East.
In another telling moment, Trump answered a question about when U.S. troops would leave Syria and seemed to imply that it was tied to Macron’s “new Iran deal.”
“I do want to come home, but I want to come home also with having accomplished what we have to accomplish,” Trump said. “So we are discussing Syria as part of an overall deal. When they made the Iran deal, what they should have done is included Syria.”
Trump also referred twice to the often-heard geopolitical argument that having pro-Iranian regimes in Iraq and Syria gives Tehran an unobstructed pathway to the sea. “Emmanuel and myself have discussed the fact that we don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean, especially since we really control it to a large extent,” he said. There was also an odd reference later to the importance of maintaining a “strong blockage to the Mediterranean.” Trump was a little fuzzy on how exactly we “control” the Mediterranean or what this blockage would look like, but it sounds as if Macron had convincingly made this point to Trump.
Macron has been pressing Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria. He even got a little ahead of himself last week by implying he had been the one to convince the U.S. president to do so, which the White House denied. Macron had said before the meeting that he and Trump would look at the Iran deal “in a wider regional context” including Syria. It seems likely that Macron is trying to get what he wants on both issues by tying them together: convincing Trump that the best way to be tough on Iran is not to kill the deal but to double down on the war in Syria.
In another noteworthy comment Trump made while discussing troop levels, he turned to U.S. allies in the region, saying, “The countries that are there, that you all know very well, are immensely wealthy. They’re going to have to pay for this. They will pay for it. We’ve spoken to them. They will pay for it. They will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing.
We will in fact bring lots of people home.”
The implication of this is that he wants Sunni Arab states—the “immensely wealthy” countries in question—to send their own troops into Syria, for a war that he now seems to view as an attempt to maintain a “blockage” between Iran and the Mediterranean. This sounds like a recipe for turning the Sunni-Shiite cold war into a hot one very quickly.
So, next month, either Trump will risk setting off an entirely manufactured nuclear weapons crisis with Iran by scuttling the JCPOA, or he could follow Macron’s suggestion and stay in the deal while pouring more resources into a strategically dubious mission in Syria and pushing Sunni allies to more directly confront Iran, exacerbating the wider sectarian tensions that the deal was never able to address. Since Trump might have done the latter anyway, Macron deserves some credit for at least trying to preserve the JCPOA, but it’s still something of a lose-lose.