Can Macron's pitch to Trump save the Iran deal?

Washington (AFP) –


European countries and the United States are talking about a new Iran deal to assuage President Donald Trump's loathing for the existing nuclear pact.

The side deal French President Emmanuel Macron pitched in Washington this week would beef up international leverage over Iran's regional influence and curtail its ballistic missile program.

Whether such a pact is even possible is unclear. For now, it seems the immediate aim is to buy time to save the original agreement.

- What's the problem? -

In 2015, the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany made a deal with Iran that saw it agree to freeze its nuclear program in return for the lifting of punishing international sanctions.

Trump has continually railed against the accord reached under his predecessor Barack Obama, calling it the "worst deal ever," and has threatened to tear it up unless its "disastrous flaws" are fixed.

He says the deal doesn't give international inspectors enough access to Iran's nuclear and military sites, and has blasted "sunset" provisions, where limits on Iran's nuclear program expire in 2025.

Trump has given European countries until May 12 to find solutions to toughen the agreement -- without involving Iran, China or Russia at this stage.

Absent this, Trump may reinstate sanctions, likely spelling an end to the deal.

- What did Macron offer? -

Macron's proposal repackages a solution previously floated by the Europeans.

He described "four pillars" to address. The first is Iran's nuclear program under the current accord -- three other components would be covered in a new deal.

These are: Iran's nuclear activities after 2025 when the sunset clauses kick in; Iran's ballistic missile activities; and a political means to limit Iran's activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

On Wednesday, Macron stressed that his role "is not to try to convince President Trump to walk away from his campaign commitments" to kill the accord.

Instead he offered further defense of the deal, saying: "I'm trying to prove that this agreement makes sense."

"It's just another way to frame the problem. What Macron was saying yesterday sounded new, because he explained the problem differently," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that is hawkish on Iran.

"After yesterday's comments, you get the impression that Trump is more amenable now than ever before to the kind of fix Macron is proposing," he told AFP.

Still, Taleblu added it is vital to negotiate with Iran and other parties.

"If you don't get Iran and China and Russia into a fix, whether it's now or later, you're going to have a problem because ultimately you want Iran's behavior to conform to a fixed deal," he said.

- What happens on May 12? -

Trump has not committed to anything, but he "signaled some openness on Macron's idea of keeping the (nuclear pact) while negotiating an additional deal," said Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

The French proposal seems to have given some hope to backers of the 2015 deal.

The Diplomacy Works think tank, created by former secretary of state John Kerry, said Macron appeared confident a side deal might keep the US in the original accord "by building on its successes with supplemental agreements that address broader Iran activities."

"This approach makes sense: other issues were always intended to be negotiated separately, but that cannot be accomplished without adhering to the narrow, and extremely effective, nuclear agreement," the group said.

Christopher Ford, the US assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, said he hoped the deal "has been saved in the context of the challenge that President Trump set for us."

But Brian Hook, senior policy advisor to the secretary of state, sounded a note of caution.

"It's too early to tell if we'll be able to reach an agreement with the Europeans. We still have some gaps to close," he told National Public Radio.

Meanwhile, the confidence of Macron himself seemed shaky Wednesday.

Despite saying he had "no inside information" on what decision Trump will make on the agreement, he added: "I listen to what President Trump is saying and it seems to me that he is not very eager to defend it."

- What are the chances of success? -

The United States and Europe first need to agree on what a supplemental deal would look like.

"I don't think Iran will consider accepting unless it is faced by international pressure, meaning that the US, the EU, Russian and China would have to be on same page," Scazzieri said.

He said London, Berlin and Paris appear to be in agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected at the White House on Friday.

Even if sanctions are reinstated after May 12, it does not necessarily spell the end for diplomacy.

Trump "would still have the option of not enforcing (sanctions) for some time to renegotiate, develop this new deal," Taleblu noted.

"He has a lot of options. He can find some legal means to mitigate the immediate impact."

For French researcher Celia Belin, from the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, Macron's proposal "is so ambitious that it looks completely impractical."

It's "hard to see how this extremely ambitious gamble would work," Belin said on Twitter.