The point of state visits is not to make progress on specific topical issues. They rather belong to the long-term scheme of bilateral relationships and aim to rejuvenate the essence of relationships between two countries. From this point of view, the language used by the French President from 23 to 25 April - words of truth both on factual disagreements between the two Presidents and words of confidence on the profound affinities that bind them - were much more relevant than the various displays of affection between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. The latter were however subject to unending speculations from the press. We might be tempted to say that both men are simply doing their job and that their showcased friendship is in no way “personal”.
"When assessing the visit in front of journalists, Mr Macron frankly said that he believed Mr Trump would decide on 12 May to withdraw his country from the JCPOA."
Despite all this, it was nonetheless obvious that President Macron’s visit to Washington was stained by the headline of the day: the future of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), signed on 14 July 2015 in Vienna. It was the main headline because President Trump’s decision on whether or not he will extend the sanctions waiver on Iran should be announced in a few days, on 12 May. This decision represents one of the deal’s main issues. If sanctions were to be reimposed, the United States would pull out of the JCPOA. We might consider that the President’s visit to Washington marked a turning point on this great issue. First, by crystallizing the feeling that the Americans were indeed about to leave the agreement. Second, by sparking the debate, launched by Emmanuel Macron, on “post- JCPOA without the US”, not to be mistaken with “post-JCPOA”. Indeed, the French and Europeans still hope they’ll be able to save the deal.
From the exchange between the two Presidents during the joint press conference, up to the more precise declarations made by Mr Macron in front of a few columnists at the end of the state visit, a sort of mist kept surrounding Mr Trump’s intentions. In the United States at least, circles hostile to the JCPOA in think-tanks pretended to believe - or actually did - that the negotiations engaged between the State Department and the three main Europeans - Germany, France, the United Kingdom - might bear fruit. If the Europeans agreed to “fix” the deal, the President would not have to “nix” it. These are certainly misleading arguments, because on at least one issue - the reconsideration of the notorious sunset clauses - the Europeans could not abide by the American point of view without denying themselves. Amongst Democrat circles, people made an effort to stay optimistic, while the disappearance of so-called “adults” surrounding Mr Trump (Secretary of State Tillerson, General McMaster, perhaps General Mattis soon) was increasing. As did the likelihood that the President might not resist much longer and give in to his profound aversion for the nuclear agreement - and for the Republican leaders’ expectations. Similar viewpoints were found in various European capitals - along with the illusion entertained by some that a demonstration of strength from the Europeans could repel the President of the United States.
Mr Macron’s visit was a sort of “reality check”. The French President valiantly defended the nuclear agreement. Nevertheless, the joint press conference suggested that his meeting on the matter in the Oval Office had been a standoff. When assessing the visit in front of journalists, Mr Macron frankly said that he believed Mr Trump would decide on 12 May to withdraw his country from the JCPOA.
It is in light of this sentiment, that the great plan - very French, its detractors would say - proposed by Mr Macron after his discussion with the American President at the White House should be understood. In Mr Macron’s view, time has come to relay the Vienna agreement through a new framework deal including the JCPOA itself (left unchanged) on the one side, and 3 “supplementary pillars” on the other, focusing on: Iran’s nuclear program after the JCPOA expiration date (2025), its ballistic program, and its expansionist activities in the region. By doing so, Emmanuel Macron recycles and gathers ideas he had already expressed back in September 2017. How should we understand his proposal, which was supported, yet in a certainly more understated fashion, by Chancellor Merkel 48 hours later?
"It is not evident that Iran’s interest is to repudiate the Vienna agreement if the US leave."
A first key of interpretation, which is that of the Wall Street Journal (hostile to the JCPOA), lies in the consideration that President Macron has gotten closer to President Trump. According to this view, his plan would mean that the Vienna agreement is dead and that the Trump administration is legitimate in killing it, since the French President feels the need to take up the American concerns in his “framework deal”. Of course, this interpretation puts aside the fact that the French plan aims to complete the Vienna agreement and not to substitute to it. Another view has it that Mr Macron’s initiative is a way to approach constructively the “day after” the American withdrawal. Roger Cohen, in The New York Times, speaks of “a useful mirage”. “Mirage” because it is highly unlikely that the multiple negotiations envisioned by the French President be engaged quickly, given that it took 15 years to find a compromise solely on Iran’s nuclear program and that, since 2015, regional antagonisms have done nothing but exacerbate and radicalize. “Useful mirage”, because it provides those who do not wish to plunge into escalating tensions - in various capitals, probably Tehran included - with a platform designed to prove that solving issues through negotiation is still possible. The “Macron plan” therefore lies in the lineage of the three Europeans in 2003 who initially launched the discussion intended to lead to the Vienna agreement.
Could the French proposal have a real impact? Frankly speaking, it essentially depends on two parameters, which are closely linked. First, on the Iranian reaction: for now, Tehran is holding its response to what should be an American withdrawal. It is not evident that Iran’s interest is to repudiate the Vienna agreement if the US leave. It is likely that a heated debate is currently taking place inside the Islamic Republic’s political bodies on this matter. We can actually see in the escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria - Israeli strikes on 9 April and new ones on the 30th, which would have in themselves been a preemptive attack to prevent an Iranian retaliation - a tool to alter the debate. As Mr Netanyahu’s recent “revelations” (on the 30th as well) about Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities are a way for the Prime Minister to influence the American decision. Because - and this is the second parameter - modalities according to which the US President would decide to reimpose sanctions are yet to be defined.
"A margin that may exist between a US “hard exit” and a “soft exit”
The range of potential options for American decisionmakers is wide. It is worth noting, to summarize too possible extremes, that one option would be for the White House to reimpose all the lifted sanctions (while adding a few more) and especially to apply secondary sanctions to non-American companies. The only “gift” that the Europeans would be granted - this is thesis held by John Bolton before he became National Security Advisor - would be a few weeks of grace, in order to limit transatlantic damages. Under this first hypothesis, Iranians’ economic incentive to stay in the deal would be reduced to nothing. The concept put forward by Mr Macron risks to shrink into a mere mirage, hardly covering up for the vacuum left by the Vienna agreement. Another option at the opposite end of the spectrum would be the partial exemption of sanctions so as to give the Europeans enough time and to convince the Iranians not to pull out of the agreement. This would allow for a real discussion on the necessary conditions to regional stability.
We could imagine that the discussions taking place between Paris and Washington until the 12 May will precisely touch upon the important margin that may exist between a US “hard exit” and a “soft exit” of the JCPOA. The fate of Macron’s initiative will largely depend on it.