Careful, Macron: Trump still has plenty of reasons to ditch the Iran nuclear deal

This could still end badly.
This could still end badly.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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In just over an hour alone with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, French president Emmanuel Macron appears to have changed the US president’s mind on a key pillar of his “America First” agenda—the Iran nuclear deal.

In a joint press conference with Macron today (April 24), Trump indicated that he probably wouldn’t reimpose sanctions on Iran on May 12, the latest deadline. Macron detailed plans to build on the 2015 Iran deal, agreed to by six of the world’s major powers and the Obama administration, and to involve even more parties and complexity.

“We’ve had very frank discussions, just the two of us,” Macron said. “You consider it a bad deal,” he said to Trump, and “for a number of months I have been saying that it is not a sufficient deal.”

Now, Macron said, “we wish to work on a new deal on Iran.” He offered up an idea of a “four-pillar” strategy that would cover Iran’s long- and short-term nuclear weapons capability, ballistic missile testing, and involve more countries in the region.

Trump, listening intently to a translation through headphones, nodded as the French president spoke. He noted that no one really knew what he would decide on May 12, but that Macron had a “pretty good idea”—then praised the concept of a “new idea with solid foundations.”

The latest turnaround for Trump

It is another apparent about-face for Trump, who has changed several long-held policy opinions after interactions with global leaders, US business people, or trusted advisors.

The current “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)” took years to negotiate and eased nearly four decades of tense relations between Iran and the West, with Tehran agreeing to curb its nuclear weapons program until 2025 in exchange for the lifting of trade sanctions. The deal was criticized by Trump as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and an “embarrassment.”

Pulling out on the May 12 deadline, though, would have had a domino effect, damaging US relations around the world, affecting American businesses at home, and jeopardizing Trump’s planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un  in June.

Making things worse, the Trump administration has a depleted diplomatic corps and an unsettled National Security Council after national security advisor H.R. McMaster was fired and replaced by John Bolton.

If the US “officially withdraws in coming weeks, the “most likely outcome” would be Iran would completely pull out, Iran’s foreign minister told the National Interest this week, while president Hassan Rouhani warned of “severe consequences.” Trump’s seeming assurance to Macron is not set in stone, though—the US president’s mind is rarely completely made up until he makes a decision public, and other considerations and opinions may yet win out.

The president is most likely to read policy advice in the form of short, to-the-point cards with declarative sentences in the style of See Jane Run, a national security analyst recently told the New Yorker. We will try our best here to show both sides of the Iran dilemma, spelled out in that format:

Seven reasons to stay in the Iran deal

1. Keeping the peace with European allies The pressure from Macron is just the first wave. German chancellor Angela Merkel visits the White House Friday, and she’s already been talking up the deal’s merits.

2. Russia and China like it Russian officials have publicly encouraged the US to stay in the deal, and the two countries are circulating a draft asking other UN countries to support it.

3. The upcoming North Korea summit Experts and US lawmakers, including senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican, warn pulling out of the Iran deal could jeopardize the planned June meeting between Trump and Kim. Why would Kim agree to give up Pyongyang’s nuclear capability, the reasoning goes, if he knows Trump turned away from a similar deal to lift sanctions?

4. The benefits for US companies like Boeing The agreement freed up American companies to sell goods to Iran, and Boeing was immediately tapped for nearly $20 billion in aircraft to help modernize Iran’s 1970s-era commercial fleet. That deal was put on hold by the US Treasury after Trump’s election. Iran was hoping for $100 billion in oil and gas industry investment alone and analysts like KPMG projected big opportunities for industries from car manufacturing and hotels to banking services.

5. It’s one way to help shrink the US trade deficit Reducing that deficit is at the top of Trump’s economic agenda (despite the fact that financial experts explain that it’s not an incredibly useful measure of US economic health). The deficit grew 12% to its highest level since 2008 last year, to $566 billion.

6. International agencies want it Officials from the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency are asking the US to stay in. But remember: Trump has shown no respect for these types of agencies, and their public clamoring for him to stay in the deal could have to opposite effect.

7. It reduces global nuclear risk An Iran that isn’t testing nuclear weapons makes the world safer. Or, as Merkel said recently, a bad Iran deal is better than none at all.

Seven reasons to leave the Iran deal

1. Iran has been testing missiles Since the deal was signed, Iran has conducted several provocative ballistic missiles tests, acts that the UK and US have criticized as breaching terms of the deal. Iran says the missiles aren’t designed to carry any nuclear weapons, and don’t violate the deal terms. Whether Rouhani and Iran’s religious leader for life, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually intend to abandon nuclear weapons remains a basic doubt.

2. Israel doesn’t like it Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the loudest voices against the deal, because of his concerns about Iran’s military buildup on the Syrian border, long-standing tensions between the two countries, and his belief Iran won’t stick to the terms.

3. Pro-Israel US campaign donors don’t like it Longtime US GOP campaign financier and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is among those opposed. “No president has been so close to so ardently a pro-Israel major donor as Sheldon Adelson” as Trump has, said Michael Green, a professor at the University of Nevada who is an expert on Adelson. My “number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” Trump told the American Israel PAC in 2016. Two years later, after taking millions in donations from AIPAC, he hasn’t gotten it done.

4. John Bolton hates it The president’s new security advisor has long criticized the deal, agitated for regime change in Iran, and has a history of scuttling disarmament deals. He could pressure the president to shut it down, even after Trump’s discussions with Macron.

5. Barack Obama set it up ”No president has taken office with the degree of contempt that Trump has demonstrated toward the actions of his predecessor, with the determination to destroy every vestige of him,” Green added.

6. It’s exactly the kind of deal Trump dislikes Like the Paris Climate Accord, the Clean Power Plan, and the TransPacific Partnership, the Iran deal was a product of years of work by the Obama administration, designed as a nuanced solution to a difficult issue. That’s just the sort of thing that Trump can’t stand.

7. Trump supporters in Congress don’t like it Some of Trump’s most loyal supporters, including senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have long been opposed to the deal. (As the talks were happening in 2015, Cotton and many Republican allies went so far as to send a letter directly to the Iranian government saying any deal would be rescinded, a move some in the US considered treasonous. Upsetting Republican allies as Congress heads into a difficult midterm elections in November could leave the Trump White House struggling to getting any further with its lawmaking agenda.