War Stories

L’Etat of the Union

A day after cozying up to Trump on the Iran deal, Macron picked him apart in a rousing speech to Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence applaud after France's President Emmanuel Macron addresses Congress on Wednesday in Washington.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence applaud after France’s President Emmanuel Macron addresses Congress on Wednesday in Washington. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In a rousing speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized trade wars, celebrated international institutions, rejected extreme nationalism, stood up for science, expressed hopes that the United States would “one day” return to the Paris talks on climate change, and defended the Iran nuclear deal.

In short, the morning after a lavish White House state dinner and reports of a blooming “bromance” between the French and American presidents, Macron took several serious jabs at the policies and beliefs of his host, Donald Trump.

At times, his nearly hour-long speech resembled a modern State of the Union, with lawmakers in half the chamber—in this case, the Democratic half—rising and cheering lustily, while those in the other half clapped politely or sat on their hands.

Macron’s critiques, which started out subtle, soon grew so pointed that one wondered if, with each passing moment, he was wrecking the charm campaign that he’d been working—smiling at Trump’s jokes, placing a hand on his knee as they sat side by side—since his trip to Washington began.

The biggest item on Macron’s agenda for the trip is to persuade Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. After their meetings on Tuesday, Trump—who has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the deal—seemed willing to find a way to stay on board. But after Macron recited his defense of the deal and his critique of Trump’s position in such a public and political forum on Wednesday, one wonders if Trump might react by burrowing back into his shell.

Macron did acknowledge that the original deal with Iran has problems, and he declared as a common objective that Iran should “never” have any nuclear weapons. (One critique of the deal is that some of its provisions expire in 2025.) However, he also said, “There is an existing framework”—namely, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the technical term for the Iran nuclear deal—and, after all, “we signed it…we cannot say we should get rid of it.”

In recent weeks, the European leaders who co-signed the deal have been searching for a way to revise or extend its terms so that Trump will stay in. Echoing his comments following his meeting with Trump a day earlier, Macron expressed support for “a more comprehensive” agreement, which would stretch the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program beyond 2025, address Iran’s ballistic missile program, and create conditions for a political solution to contain Iran’s activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

However, Macron emphasized, these extensions needed to “build on” the existing framework—not to replace it or throw it out.

Iranian officials have derided the notion of changing the deal, which international inspectors have said—and even Trump officials have admitted—Iran is fully obeying. However, some European officials have suggested that negotiators from the countries that hammered out the deal might discuss a “supplemental” to the accord, in the same way that Soviet­–American arms-control treaties built on each other during the Cold War.

However, the prospects seem grim. Those early arms-control treaties were strictly limited to the subject of nuclear weapons. The treaties were hailed as advances toward détente, even at a time when Moscow was supporting anti-Western regimes and revolutions—as well as building up its non-nuclear military forces in Eastern Europe.

Similarly, the powers that negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran—the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain), plus Germany and a delegation from the European Union—all deliberately kept non-nuclear issues out of these talks. No one contested that Iran had expansionist intentions in the Middle East, but they reasoned that an expansionist Iran without nuclear weapons was preferable to one with nuclear weapons.

Certainly Iran would not agree to further restrictions on its policies unless, at minimum, there were further relaxations of sanctions on its economy. Yet no leader—not Trump, Macron, or anyone else—has proposed any specific accommodations. In fact, some sanctions, which should have been lifted, are still in place; and Trump’s repeated threats to re-impose all sanctions have discouraged many American and European companies from doing business with Iran out of fear they might have to pull out—and thus lose their investments—if Trump carries out his threats.

Trump’s next big decision on these matters comes May 12, when he will either sign another waiver extending sanctions relief, as he has done twice already, or pull out of the deal and crack down. He has said he’s inclined to do the latter. Macron’s bonhomie in their private meetings seemed to have softened Trump’s stance. We’ll soon see whether his tougher talk in public—and the roaring cheers from congressional Democrats—might harden it again.