Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington this week was notable for its warm atmospherics, but its significance could be far more substantial. The French President said he’s willing to accept a revised Iran nuclear deal that includes at least some of President Trump’s demands. “We want sustainable stability, and I believe that the discussions we’ve had together make it possible to open the way, to pave the way, for a new agreement,” Mr Macron said Tuesday, surprising many in Europe. The Trump-centric U.S. media gave more attention to Mr Macron’s remarks a day later that he thinks Mr Trump still wants to withdraw from the deal by May 12, but that isn’t news. Progress toward a joint Europe-U.S. revision is. Specifically, the French leader appears to be on board with fixing at least two of three giant loopholes in the John Kerry-Barack Obama deal: strengthening inspections at any suspect sites inside Iran and adding a provision on Iran’s ballistic missiles. He also seems to have embraced the larger Trump strategy to contain Iran, which includes confronting its record of cyber attacks, human-rights abuses, support for terrorism and military adventurism.
This is a major advance, and it offers hope that the U.S. and France, Britain and Germany can agree on a revised pact. Contrary to common misunderstanding, Iran, Russia and China wouldn’t have to agree to these changes. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, isn’t a treaty. Mr Obama never submitted it for Senate approval because he knew it would be defeated. The deal is essentially a set of assurances agreed to at the United Nations that lack the force of U.S. law. The U.S. and the French are still negotiating over the range of missiles that would be banned. But we’re told the biggest remaining U.S. disagreement with Mr Macron is the deal’s sunset provision. To get a deal before leaving office, Mr Obama agreed to let the pact begin to expire in 2025. This is an invitation to Iran to bide its time and restart its nuclear program from a stronger economic position in a mere seven years. Mr Trump is right to want to make the deal permanent, and Mr Macron told Congress Wednesday that “Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons. Not now. Not in five years. Not in 10 years. Never.” Never is later than 2025.
The Europeans fear this would cause Iran to renounce the deal and break out to build a bomb. But while the mullahs will protest, Iran has incentives to remain in a revised deal. The terms are simply too good for Iran even with revisions, and Iran can’t afford the renewal of sanctions if it wants faster growth to create jobs for its restive youth. Iran needs foreign trade and investment. On the sunset provision, Iran could decide to ignore a U.S.-Europe rewrite and wait until 2025 to test the world’s resolve to enforce it. This is all the more reason not to let this single issue block U.S. and European agreement now. The benefits would be considerable. A revised deal would show Western unity against Russian revanchism and Iranian imperialism. It would show Iran that the Obama-Kerry appeasement was the exception, not a Western consensus. On the eve of a Trump-Kim Jong Un summit, a Europe-U.S. rewrite would also reinforce Mr Trump’s demand that North Korea must dismantle its nuclear program to have normal relations with the world.
If Europe and the U.S. can’t agree, Mr Macron is right that Mr Trump will probably honour his promise to withdraw on May 12. There would be a diplomatic uproar, and Mr Trump would be denounced by the usual suspects. Iran and some in Europe would try to isolate the U.S. diplomatically. But Mr Trump has ample discretion to reimpose sanctions on Iran under U.S. law. If Europe tried to join Iran and Russia and isolate the U.S., the Trump Administration could then also impose secondary sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran. Faced with the choice of business with the U.S. or Iran, most companies would choose the U.S. But there’s no denying the consequences of unilateral U.S. withdrawal would be messy. All of which argues for the U.S. and Europe to agree on terms for a rewrite of the Kerry-Obama Iran deal. Europe has to decide if it wants to unite with the U.S. to make the Iran deal better for world security, or stick with the Obama terms and risk a showdown over U.S. sanctions on Iran and Europe.
Credit: The Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal, 26 April 2018.