President Donald Trump savaged the “insane” and “ridiculous” Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, declaring it “a disaster.” With French President Emmanuel Macron at his side, Trump threatened Iran, in blunt language that should sound familiar to its leaders, that Tehran would pay prices “like never before” if it dared threaten the United States or relaunch it’s nuclear program. He certainly sounded, at times, as if a U.S. withdrawal on May 12 from the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was already a done deal.
Benjamin Netanyahu must have been delighted with Trump’s rough rhetoric, but can the prime minister relax and rest on his laurels? Not necessarily, or at least not yet.
Macron is the star quarterback in a last minute Hail Mary play by the international community in general, and Western European powers in particular, to dissuade Trump from decertifying the Iran nuclear accord in two and a half weeks, effectively withdrawing the U.S. from the deal altogether. German Chancellor Angel Merkel will come to the White House in two days with an identical message, but the chips are mostly on Macron. Trump’s animosity towards Barack Obama fuels his hostility towards the nuclear accord, but his special - not to say weird - relationship with Macron may temper it. The last thing Trump wants is to sacrifice his treasured ties with Macron on the altar of their seemingly sharp clash over the nuclear deal.
Trump’s harsh diatribe against Iran was thus tempered by more ambiguous statements that indicate, to Netanyahu’s horror, that the door to maintaining the nuclear deal might still be open. Macron and Merkel are trying to persuade Trump to make do with new side agreements - which won’t include China, Russia and the United Nations, the three other signatories to the deal - that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional expansion and its support for terror, as well as agreements on how they would deal with any Iranian violation of the JCPOA. Trump may have simply wanted to provide Macron with a face saving gesture that would ease his embarrassment in Paris, but he might also be preparing an alibi for himself should he decide, contrary to current expectations, to keep the nuclear deal alive.
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Macron, for his part, supplied Trump with the spin that could whitewash such a reversal: It’s a new deal, the French president suggested, sealing his proposal with an unconventional kiss on Trump’s cheek.
Trump, for his part, pulled out all the stops to accord his favorite foreign leader a grand reception, with red carpets, 21 guns and a state dinner, but Trump being Trump, he also succeeded in embarrassing him as well. He mocked the nuclear deal that Macron was defending while the French president sat by his side. He used one of their question times to tout his own economic achievements and another to blast his Democratic opponents. He knocked the trade policies of the European Union, which Macron staunchly defends. And to illustrate their intimate ties, Trump even removed a speck from Macron’s tailored French suit, making sure to tell the astonished reporters that it was dandruff. Lovers of etiquette and defenders of diplomatic protocol throughout the world groaned, then buried their heads in shame.
But Macron, make no mistake, knows exactly whom he’s dealing with. Unlike Trump, who governs by instinct and gut feelings, Macron is a wily, disciplined and calculating politician. After his election in May 2017, the French leader decided he would embrace his widely reviled American counterpart — flatter him incessantly, give him a royal welcome in Paris on Bastille Day, participate in the recent U.S. attack on Syria and then come to Washington not only as Trump’s first official guest but as his best friend on earth. It’s no wonder that the name most often mentioned at the White House on Tuesday was that of Marquis Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution: It’s hard to think of another time in which America’s relations with France were so significantly better than those with other countries in the world.
Both leaders share their respective sensational achievements of coming out of nowhere to take over their governments, but this is where the similarities end. In addition to the traditional animosity of the American right to France, which last peaked when French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries in the wake of Paris’ refusal to support the Iraq War, Macron is just the kind of guy that Trump should have despised: young, smart, educated, globalist, multilateralist, a man of culture and a champion of environmental protection. Nonetheless, the two men have developed what seems like a beautiful friendship, though it’s hard to tell whether it’s a case of opposites attracting or a marriage of convenience that can be annulled at a moment’s notice.
Macron’s unequivocal defense of the agreement that Trump seems determined to smash is supposed to make clear to the American president that he and the U.S. could pay a heavy price if the nuclear deal collapses. In addition to the threat of a military confrontation with Iran, a unilateral decision by Trump to abandon the deal would drive a deep wedge between Washington and its European allies and would further harm America’s already faltering standing abroad. Coming as it may shortly before or after an expected meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which Trump extolled repeatedly on Tuesday, it’s not clear that Trump would benefit from coming to the dramatic summit as a leader who reneges on a signed nuclear deal without any proof or claim that the other side has violated it.
In their press conference, Trump asserted that he’s already reached a decision how he will act on May 12, and Macron already knows what it is. Judging by Macron’s response, at least, the French president hasn’t given up hope. Perhaps he is relying on the precedent of Kim Jong Un, whom Trump once described as a “rocket man” and a “monster” but now speaks of favorably, depicting him on Tuesday as “responsible” and “positive." With the mercurial Trump, after all, one really can’t be sure until the very last minute. In public, Netanyahu may be showing confidence that Trump is about to fulfill his dream of nixing the Iran deal, but after watching the Francophile lovefest at the White House, he’s probably biting his nails all the same.