Three Visits and the Battle for the Iran Deal

There were three high-level foreign visits to the U.S. east coast this week, each with significant implications for the future of the Iran Deal (a.k.a. JCPOA). First, French President Emmanuel Macron came to DC for the first state visit of the Trump Presidency. Next, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a trip to New York, where he made the rounds at various think tanks and media outlets ahead of meetings at the United Nations. Finally, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in Washington, DC, this morning to meet with top American defense officials on issues related to Iran and Syria.

Let’s examine each of these visits and their meaning, starting with the French President’s.

Emmanuel Macron’s state visit was by far the most high-profile of the three dignitaries this week. As multiple outlets reported, finding a way to “save” the Iran Deal was at the top of Macron’s policy agenda. President Trump, of course, has made his distaste for the deal in its present form well known. He has set a deadline of May 12 for the United States’ European partners to find a way to fix the flaws he sees in the agreement, namely the sunset clauses, inspection restrictions, and failure to adequately confront Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior. If Europe fails to address these issues to Trump’s satisfaction, Trump has said he will formally withdraw the United States from the agreement, paving the way for the reimposition of harsh economic sanctions.

Macron arrived armed with a proposal for a “new, bigger” Iran Deal — clever phrasing given the President’s affinity for all things “new” and “big.” Details are sparse at the moment, but the main idea is that the deal will add three new “pillars” targeted at Trump’s stated areas of concern. Macron hopes that this will be sufficient to placate the American President and prevent a collapse of the deal.

And collapse is still very much on the table, as demonstrated by the second prominent foreign visitor this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Zarif came to New York several days ago and participated in a whirlwind tour of the think tank and media circuit ahead of a planned meeting at the United Nations. In his public appearances, Zarif made clear that should the United States withdraw from the deal next month, Iran will likely reciprocate. “There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in,” Zarif told the Associated Press. Other high-ranking Iranian officials echoed Zarif’s comments, including President Hassan Rouhani, who warned of “severe consequences”  following a U.S. exit. More concerning is that those consequences may go beyond the dissolution of the JCPOA. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said this week that Iran might also consider withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the U.S. scraps the Iran Deal.

The final important visit this week is the one getting the least attention, but it may end up being the most significant. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in DC this morning to meet with several high-ranking Trump administration officials. Liberman is among the most hawkish members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, especially on Iran. He called the Iran Deal an “attempt to avoid reality,” claiming that it has done nothing to moderate Iranian behavior and is yielding worse results than with North Korea. In 2013, before the final agreement was signed, Liberman, then serving as Foreign Minister for Netanyahu, appeared to advocate for military action against Iran over a diplomatic approach: “You know…my philosophy in my private life and my political life: if you want to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.”

Liberman will be meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as well as National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom share Liberman’s hawkish views on Iran. Liberman is sure to pressure both of them for stronger American action against Iran, both on the deal and in other regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen. While Mattis has so far proven reluctant to entirely repudiate the Iran Deal to the point where he believes the United States should abandon it altogether, Bolton has shown no such lack of courage in his convictions. The National Security Advisor has kept a low profile in his first few weeks on the job — at the very least, he has yet to get the United States into another war — but this is a man who for years has been publicly calling for direct military action against Iran. Liberman is sure to find a sympathetic ear during their meeting.

What these three visits will ultimately achieve depends on who will have the most influence in shaping Trump’s outlook when decision time arrives in a few weeks.

The consensus around DC seems to be that Macron enjoys a particularly chummy relationship with Trump. Given the near total lack of coherent strategy of this administration, policy analysts and pundits observing these visits have been reduced to trying to read the tea leaves of body language and tone of voice to try to figure out which way Trump may be leaning. I’ve seen multiple people with excellent academic and professional credentials commenting seriously on the way in which Trump and Macron physically interact with each other as a method of discerning the President’s upcoming policy decision.

Public displays of affection notwithstanding, Macron is leaving DC still very much at the bottom of an uphill battle. Regardless of whether or not Trump liked his proposal for an enhanced deal, Macron will have to get his European partners, specifically Great Britain and Germany, to go along with it as well. Germany recently made its position perfectly clear: it favors keeping the deal as is and is unwilling to renegotiate. And lest anyone think that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will budge from that position to placate Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Trump’s relationship with Merkel is far less cordial than with Macron.

Significantly, the French President all but admitted defeat earlier today. Following his address to Congress this afternoon, Macron said he believes that Trump is still likely to take the U.S. out of the deal.

One glaring omission from the discussion surrounding the French proposal is what the Iranians think of all this. Right now, the effort is framed purely as a European — and really, just a French — initiative, the assumption being that if Macron can get Trump to agree to a more comprehensive framework, then the deal will be saved.

Zarif’s visit to New York this week had a much different feel than Macron’s glitzy affair in DC. The Iranian Foreign Minister obviously does not have the option of personally meeting with administration officials, let alone being feted at a state dinner, so he was forced to take an alternative approach. In making the media rounds, Zarif sought to argue Iran’s case in the public forum in the hope that his message might find its way to key decision makers via the airwaves.

Zarif adopted a defiant tone, repeatedly emphasizing that Iran’s position on the existing deal has not changed in light of recent developments. The Iranians expect full implementation of the text as written by all parties. Going a step further, Zarif accused the U.S. of not holding up its end of the bargain. In an interview with Al-Monitor, the Foreign Minister said, “The Trump administration was never in the JCPOA. They made sure over the last 15 months that Iran would not benefit from the economic dividends of the JCPOA, and so whatever they do in three weeks would not be a major break from the past.” Zarif went on to say that Iran’s decision on whether or not to continue with the deal will depend on its national interests and what course of action best advances them.

As I wrote last week, by bending over backward to flatter and please Trump without so much as a nod to Iranian interests, Europe is sending a strong signal to Tehran that it will not risk a conflagration with the United States on this issue. If broad-based economic sanctions are back on the table, and Europe is not willing to protect businesses seeking to do business with Iran, then Iran might not see any benefit to continuing to adhere to the strict terms of the agreement. This appears to be how things are playing out right now.

Finally, there are the Israelis. Liberman’s visit will not be as publicized as the other two have been. I don’t expect him to make any media appearances while he’s in town. The only think tank appearance I can find is a discussion at the right-wing/neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) on Friday, where he’s unlikely to face much pushback from a mostly like-minded audience.

As with so much of the Trump administration, the pomp and circumstance of the public events are just a distraction. The real action is taking place behind the scenes. Liberman cleverly planned his visit on the tail end of Macron and Zarif’s. More importantly, he is targeting his meetings with two of Trump’s most influential advisors who, at a minimum, share his hawkish views on Iran. Bolton, especially, won’t require much convincing.

The danger of Liberman’s trip lies not so much in the substance of the discussion but in the aftermath.The Israelis, like the rest of the world, are fully aware at this point of Trump’s proclivity to agree with the last thing anyone has said to him. Bolton will surely convey the Israeli Defense Minister’s concerns to Trump in his next meeting with the President. He will continue to pressure the President over the coming weeks toward exiting the deal, stressing the need to take a harsher line with the Iranians. The Israelis are betting that having these voices repeating their message on loop for a few weeks will have a far greater impact when Trump finally makes his decision in May than any single interaction with the President, no matter how glitzy or glamorous.

They may well be right.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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