As Macron arrives to meet Trump, fate of Iran nuclear deal is front and center

 As Macron arrives to meet Trump, fate of Iran nuclear deal is front and center

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands at the conclusion of a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, July 13, 2017.

The last time they met face to face, at the United Nations in September, French President Emmanuel Macron was puzzled when President Trump and his delegation seemed to have no agenda, carried no papers and took no notes.

“It was like a good discussion with a buddy in a bar,” recalled a French official. “At the end, you dont know exactly what it means.” Now that Trump has been in office longer, the official mused, “maybe the process is different.”

At the very least, the agenda will be clear to both sides when Macron arrives here Monday for the first official state visit Trump has hosted for any leader. Following their joint attack, with Britain, on Syrian President Bashar al-Assads chemical weapons facilities early this month, there is a Syria strategy to figure out. Trade, climate change, Russia, North Korea and counterterrorism are all on the to-do list.

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But no issue looms larger than Iran, and the nuclear agreement that the United States and five other countries signed with Tehran in 2015. Trump has called it a bad deal and said the United States will withdraw unless it is “fixed.” Signatories France, Britain and Germany vehemently disagree, say there can be no changes to the agreement, and have pledged they will not follow Trumps lead.

The U.S. decision deadline is May 12. Failure to work out a compromise between the United States and its closest European allies that will keep the nuclear accord alive could lead to the most significant trans-Atlantic breach in decades.

Enter Macron. By consensus among his counterparts in Europe, if there is accommodation to be reached with Trump on Iran, he is the man to close the deal.

Senior French, British and German officials have been negotiating for months with a State Department team led by Brian Hook, director of policy planning, to come up with a way to meet Trumps demands without altering the deal itself or driving the other signatories — Russia, China and, of course, Iran — to cry foul.

According to U.S. and European officials involved in those talks, significant progress has been made on addressing concerns about the deals sunset clauses, its verification rules, and the absence of restrictions on Iranian ballistic missile testing and development, as well as new measures to counter Irans “malign” activities in Syria and beyond in the Middle East. Four documents have been drafted that they believe are responsive to Trumps criticisms.

An overall declaration and three sub-texts are to outline their joint understanding that other international conventions will prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons beyond restrictions that expire in the next decade, push the International Atomic Energy Agency to expand its monitoring and promise strict sanctions if Iran moves forward with intercontinental ballistic missile development.

Mike Pompeo, Trumps nominee for secretary of state, was a harsh critic of the deal when it was signed and spoke openly about bombing Irans nuclear installations. But at his confirmation hearing last week, Pompeo assured lawmakers that “there is no doubt that this administrations policy, and my view, is that the solution to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, to finding ourselves in the same place we are in North Korea in Iran, is through diplomacy.” He also agreed with the Europeans and the IAEA that Iran has so far complied with its terms.

“I am confident that the issue will be discussed at great length” during Trumps upcoming meetings with European leaders, including a one-day visit here by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, following Macrons departure late Wednesday, Pompeo said. “Its important to them and I know theyll raise their hopes and concerns.”

In an interview broadcast on “Fox News Sunday,” Macron acknowledged that the nuclear deal was not perfect.

“But what do you have for a better option?” he asked. “I dont see it.”

Neither Macron nor the White House expect a final decision by Trump during the French presidents visit, officials from both countries said. For their part, the Europeans worry that the mercurial U.S. president, who railed against the deal during his presidential campaign and ever since, will ultimately decide to trash it even if his State Department recommends otherwise.

But Macron has been working toward this moment for months. “What I told him was not to tear up the deal,” he told journalists in October.

“Its a very long shot, but its the only one we have,” François Heisbourg, a former French presidential adviser on defense and national security, said of the Macron offensive. “You might as well try.”

The special bond that seems to have developed between the 71-year-old American president and Macron, a 40-year-old political novice elected just a year ago, is no accident. While Merkel is clearly turned off by Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa Mays Parliament and population have indicated they dont even want him to visit, Macron has gone far out of his way to cultivate him.

Their first handshake, a virtual arm-wrestle at an international meeting in Germany in June, produced a globally viral video. “He is a specialist,” Macron said on Fox, referring to Trumps apparent attempt at establishing physical dominance by forcibly yanking Macrons hand toward his own body. “Seeing [Japanese] Prime Minister Abe and some of the different victims, I resisted.” It was, he said, laughing, a “friendly moment. Dont worry.”

In July, Macron invited Trump to Bastille Day in Paris, treated him as a senior statesman and impressed him with a front-row seat at a massive military parade that Trump now plans to emulate in Washington this fall. In addition to the September U.N. meeting, the two have near-weekly telephone conversations.

“Its Macrons nature,” said William Drozdiak, author of “Fractured Continent: Europes Crises and the Fate of the West” and an upcoming biography of the French president. “He walks into a room, sees a chair and tries to seduce it.”

“He looks at Trump and says, Okay, weve got our interests, and the best way of securing them is for me to flatter this guy, pat him on the back and get along with him so that I can manipulate him,” Drozdiak said. Macron is “the ultimate pragmatist . . . thats why hes the only Western leader now with an open dialogue to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” as well as Trump.

The French turn down their noses at media descriptions of a “bromance” between the French and U.S. presidents. “Macron is not the friend of Trump,” said the French official, speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the relationship. “We dont believe all this stuff about bromance, that theyre buddies.”

“Macron is doing this because he knows that he has to be close to our closest ally, the president of the most powerful country in the world. Its in our interest to have a good relationship. He doesnt go as a friend,” the official said.

The length and depth of the U.S.-French relationship will be spotlighted during the visit, an extravaganza of activities clearly designed to match Trumps reception in Paris last summer. After his midday Monday arrival, Macron and his wife will travel by helicopter with the Trumps to Mount Vernon, George Washingtons home about 15 miles south of Washington, for dinner, weather permitting, on the broad terrace overlooking the Potomac River.

“President Trump is eager to host” the Macrons at Mount Vernon, “as he remembers fondly the dinner [Macron] hosted at the Eiffel Tower on the eve of Bastille Day” for Trump and the first lady, said a senior administration official who briefed reporters Friday on the visit, on White House-imposed condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday morning, Trump and Macron will hold a one-on-one meeting, followed by expanded talks with their delegations. U.S. officials will include Vice President Pence, the secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense and Commerce, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Trump national security adviser John Bolton and economic adviser Larry Kudlow.

Macron will attend a State Department lunch hosted by Pence and a state dinner at the White House on Tuesday.

He will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday morning, the anniversary of a 1960 address there by former French president Charles de Gaulle. In the afternoon, after a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, he will hold a town hall meeting with students at George Washington University, followed by a solo news conference before his departure.

On Syria, the two leaders will try to develop a joint response to kick in if Assad persists in using chemical weapons. Trump is expected to press Macron — as he has other allies and partners — to increase the French contribution to Syrian stabilization, while the French leader is seeking clarity on Trumps plans for U.S. troop withdrawal and an overall U.S. strategy, including toward Iran. Europes focus is on preventing another wave of Middle East migrants, a phenomenon that has already pushed the European political center toward the right.

The visit is also an “opportunity to start forging a more unified front” toward Chinese economic expansion, the administration official said, as well as an agreed approach to Putin, whom Macron will visit next month in St. Petersburg.

On Thursday, Macron and Merkel met in Berlin to discuss their shared concerns about Trumps trade policies, and particularly the May 1 U.S. deadline for imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The European Union is preparing a proposal, for presentation to Trump before the deadline, to head off the levies.

“Im an easy guy. Im very simple. Im straightforward,” Macron said on Fox. “Its too complicated if you make war on everybody. You make trade war on China, trade war against Europe. War in Syria. War against Iran. Come on, it doesnt work. You need allies. We are the ally.”

On each issue of the agenda, Macrons overall goal is to pull the United States closer to Europe, something his partners on the continent believe he is uniquely situated to do.

After Merkel first met Trump here early last year, the chancellor returned to Germany aghast at what she saw as the new U.S. presidents disregard for the oldest U.S. allies and his apparent retreat from global leadership. In public speeches and private meetings, she told the French, British and others that perhaps it was time for Europe to take “our fate into our own hands.”

But “as they started analyzing” what that would mean in security and other terms, “it just didnt compute,” Drozdiak said. “Their conclusion was, youve got to keep the U.S. engaged.”

James McAuley in Paris and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

By: The Washington Post

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