The French president’s bromance with Trump dismayed opponents of the Iran nuclear deal. But Trump’s new foreign policy team may tip the balance back in Netanyahu’s direction.
French President Emanuel Macron’s surprising friendship with Trump on display at the White House this week gave hope to Europeans and those Americans who are afraid that the president’s abhorrence of his predecessor’s signature foreign policy achievement might be preserved.
The U.S. president attacked the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in typically Trumpian style as “insane,” “ridiculous” and a “disaster.”
But he also seemed to indicate that he was wavering in his determination to pull the U.S. out of the deal or even to insist on its alteration.
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Though to outward appearances, Macron and Trump are unlikely pals, the two appear to have some sort of bond that the U.S. president values. That could motivate him to accede to Macron’s request that he accept the European formula for preserving the JCPOA, involving side deals that would supposedly impose limits on Iran’s missile program, the lack of which is one of the many flaws in the nuclear deal.
Thus, while Trump’s rhetoric about Iran remains red hot, he appeared open to the possibility that a way might be found to allow him to claim he was changing the terms of an agreement he deplores - while not blowing it up altogether.
That possibility has to alarm the Israeli government, as well as American foes of the deal, since the "side deal formula" may be more about allowing Trump to save face than a realistic plan to restrain Iran in a meaningful way, let alone correct the obvious and fatal flaws in the nuclear pact.
That’s especially true since reports have already surfaced that the side deal on missiles the French are selling Trump will ban longer range ballistic missiles that could reach Europe or the U.S. from Iranian bases, but not short range weapons that could easily strike Israel.
Nor is there any indication that any other side deal will do a thing about Iran’s adventures in the region such as its military bases in Syria or its support of terrorism.
Moreover, the French also seem to be trying to convince Trump that the sunset clauses in the nuclear deal don’t have to be specifically addressed. Those clauses are the one inarguably disastrous flaw in the JCPOA that more or less guarantees that Iran will be able to build a bomb once the deal expires.
The concept that this problem can be finessed by diplomatic understandings that will essentially change nothing about the pact seems not so much flawed as disingenuous. Yet the French hope that if the U.S. can’t come up with a viable alternative before the May 12 deadline for the next renewal of the deal, Trump will follow his new friend’s advice.
Despite the warm atmosphere between the two presidents at the White House, the assumption that Macron’s "Trump whisperer" act will ensure the survival of the JCPOA may be mistaken.
Trump’s instinctive distrust of the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment, even when it comes in a French accent, could overcome any desire to please Macron.
For the last 15 months, the struggle to control U.S. foreign policy has been seen as largely a conflict between Trump and his true believers on one side, and the “adults” in the administration on the other - who see their duty as keeping the unruly president tethered to reality.
Such figures as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMasters as well as Secretary of Defense James Mattis have had their successes in this regard.
But Trump’s lack of trust in the so-called experts on issues where he has strong convictions -such as trade and Iran - and even those where he had none - such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict - always prevails.
That’s why the U.S. embassy to Israel is moving to Jerusalem, and why the president still wants to find a way to amend or renegotiate the nuclear deal, to put a lid on Iranian ambitions.
The other obstacle to Macron’s objective is the fact that Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have replaced Tillerson and McMasters. Both are, like Trump, strong opponents of the Iran deal and convinced it must be scrapped or changed.
After Macron goes home, the pair will have weeks to continue to work on Trump meaning that, as is typical with this president, the person(s) who have his ear at the moment will always have more influence than someone who isn’t there.
Will Pompeo and Bolton blow up the deal in the manner that opponents of the pact like Prime Minister Netanyahu want? The answer is probably not. Pompeo is more open to the strategy of a new negotiating track to deal with the deal’s shortcomings than Bolton and neither is likely to convince Trump to do something that could lead directly to a conflict.
It’s also true that neither man is likely to be willing to try to convince Trump to give up his goal of pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria. That means that even if the U.S. rebuffs the Europeans and embarks on an effort to change the deal, Trump is probably going to do nothing about Iranian activity in Syria and Russia’s support for their presence.
That is something that is a more immediate threat to Israeli security than the long-term peril that the nuclear deal presents. On this issue, Netanyahu will be disappointed with U.S. policy even if Macron doesn’t get his way on the JCPOA.
But Pompeo and Bolton will be able to play on Trump’s contempt for the experts that produced the Iran deal he hates. They may tell him that listening to the Europeans won’t end the sunset clauses and that U.S. financial power can compel the West to follow America’s lead on new sanctions.
They may also argue that despite Tehran’s bravado, Iran’s economy is too weak to withstand more pressure.
While predicting Trump’s decision is a fool’s errand, Pompeo and Bolton and the president’s predilections are likely to frustrate the efforts of the "adults" and the Europeans to preserve a deal that is still inextricably linked in the president’s mind to Barack Obama’s worldview. Trump’s distrust of the foreign policy establishment is a far stronger impulse than his desire to accommodate even Macron.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin