When he traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump – in an effort to “save the Iran nuclear deal” – French President Emmanuel Macron unfortunately introduced more confusion than clarity into the debate.
Up until the visit it had seemed that the U.S. and European allies were trying to reach an agreement among themselves on how to "fix" the Iran nuclear deal, namely, by delineating the issues of concern regarding the Iran nuclear file that would trigger sanctions.
Top of the list are missiles, inspections, and possibly Iran breaching the one-year threshold to nuclear capability breakout. They would make this new supplemental deal permanent.
But in his press conference in Washington, Macron suddenly noted his proposal for a supplemental deal on missiles, JCPOA sunset provisions, and Iran’s destabilizing regional activities – with Iran. He thus not only redefined the topics, but also bizarrely proposed including Iran itself in the negotiations.
As far as anyone could tell, discussions between the U.S. and Europeans from February to April this year hadn't raised the idea of including Iran in a new deal. That's because it is an obvious non-starter, as the Iranians themselves clarified to the French when the latter approached them months earlier about getting a new deal on the missile front (stop acting like "Trump's lapdog," as Ali Akbar Velayati said about Macron at the time.)
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The day after the press conference, some media sources reported on Macron’s proposal as if it referred solely to negotiations between the Americans and the Europeans - but the confusion over whether Iran is in or out continued.
If Macron’s proposal is indeed to enter into new negotiations with Iran, it is seriously misguided.
It would derail current efforts to relatively quickly strengthen the deal – and much can be done in this regard almost immediately – in favor of entering into a new never-ending process with Iran. That process could end up with even further and more problematic concessions to Tehran. It would waste valuable time that can and should be directed to strengthening the critically flawed provisions of the JCPOA.
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The dire need for a much more robust inspections regime, and to address all missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead, as well as the absurdity of the unconditional sunset clauses in the deal, have all been clearly underscored by the information contained in the Iran archives revealed last week by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clearly no negotiations are going to come to fruition before Trump's decision on May 12th. It is thus worth looking at what the various parties' interests are as we assess what is likely to happen if, in a week, Trump does not issue the sanctions waivers - meaning the U.S. would effectively leave the JCPOA.
Start with Iran. Iran has no interest in leaving what is a pretty good deal - from their perspective.
It legitimizes their enrichment program, lets them work on advanced centrifuges and missiles, has inspections that do not cover military facilities in any significant manner and, most importantly, has an unconditional expiration date. And the deal includes significant sanctions relief. Not bad for a state that “everyone knew” was working on developing nuclear weapons.
Therefore – their threats to leave the deal notwithstanding – Iran is more likely to try to maintain it, with the help of the more-than-willing Europeans. The Iranians will also be working hard to try to drive a deeper wedge between the U.S. and Europe.
What about American and European interests? They would seem to be better served by continued conversations than by allowing a serious rift in trans-Atlantic relations. Europe will probably want to try to bring the U.S. back to the deal and the U.S. will still want European cooperation in strengthening certain messages to Iran, and to continue work on an acceptable fix. There’s even a possibility that after the U.S. leaves the deal there will be more overall interest in cooperating to strengthen it.
On Europe, recent events indicate that France, Germany and the UK are coming forward and showing more willingness to work with the Trump administration, as evidenced by the joint U.S.-UK-France missile strike in Syria, and Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visits to the U.S. to talk to Trump.
This is a positive dynamic: the only way to work with Europe effectively is if individual strong European states assume a leading role. With all due respect to the benefits of the EU project, if Federica Mogherini is the face of European foreign policy, it is a recipe for very poor and ineffective policy.
Is there an American plan for the day after? This is still not clear. But there is plenty of evidence that the Trump administration understands that pressure is crucial for getting results from the Tehran regime.
In 2003, it was Iran’s fear of U.S. military force that introduced elements of caution into their military nuclear program, and in 2013 it was only the pressure of the biting sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. So if the U.S. leaves the deal it is likely to push for considerably enhanced sanctions.
The U.S. would be wise to continue other forms of pressure on Iran as well. The only thing that has worked in the nuclear realm has been pressure on the regime – and it remains the only key to changing Tehran's behavior.
The doomsday scenarios of post-U.S. withdrawal do not seem to fit a clear-headed assessment of the various interests of the parties. But if the fear of doomsday shocks the Europeans into greater cooperation with the Trump administration, that would be a welcome outcome.
That said, states do not necessarily follow their best interests; therefore things could go differently. What is certain, however, is that the best route at this late stage is for the U.S. and Europeans to work together to very significantly strengthen the JCPOA, keeping in mind that Iran’s demonstrative record in the nuclear realm is that of a serial cheat and consistent liar.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of its Arms Control and Regional Security Program. She is the author of Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation (2012). Twitter: @EmilyBLandau