Published on April 30, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron wants to rescue the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as JCPOA. His office made a joint announcement with the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the two leaders would work together on preserving the deal, in the wake of Macron’s state visit to the United States, where he tried to convince his American counterpart to give the deal a chance. Macron has put forward a proposal that could, indeed, improve the situation and enable everyone to claim victory.
Trump should take up Macron’s suggestion: to treat the existing deal, known by its acronym JCPOA, which covers Iran’s nuclear program, as one leg in a broader accord that would cover nuclear activities beyond JCPOA’s 10-year deadline, ballistic missile technology, and, especially, Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region.
This is clever diplomacy. It would enable Trump to claim victory by pursuing an even bigger deal (“the biggest deal ever,” perhaps?). Trying to improve the situation in one area by opening other areas for discussion is a good negotiating tactic, which the author of “The Art of the Deal” might appreciate.
It might potentially address Iranian concerns: The economic windfall from the deal never materialized, because while it lifted nuclear proliferation-related sanctions, it did not lift terrorism sponsorship-related sanctions, and so deterred many companies from investing in Iran due to the regulatory complexity. Given that, as Eli Lake points out, the regime is embattled by economic underperformance and public bitterness about its overseas adventures, it might jump at the chance to have further sanctions lifted.
This is the right approach. One can see JCPOA as intensely flawed and yet still believe that, now that it is signed, scuttling it would be worse than staying in and trying to improve the situation from there. (This is, for example, the position of Jim Mattis, U.S. defense chief and Iran hawk.)
It is also good to make this case because France has successfully managed to walk a tight line between engagement and toughness. Germany, mostly seeing Iran as a potential export market, has at times seemed eager to get Iran sanctions lifted at any cost. The U.S. veers wildly in its Iran approach depending on the party occupying the White House.
France has maintained business, scientific and cultural ties with Iran, as well as diplomatic dialogue, and has eschewed the sort of saber-rattling that is too often the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy. Famously, in the 1990s, France openly flouted the American D’Amato-Kennedy Act, which inflicted U.S. sanctions on companies investing in the hydrocarbon sector in Iran and Libya, encouraging Total to invest in the country (EU companies ended up getting an exemption).
And yet, France has been unfailingly uncompromising when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. There is an intrinsic motive: As a nuclear-armed country, France has always made nonproliferation a priority, as a WikiLeaks-leaked U.S. embassy cable on France’s Iran policy pointed out. The French government has made serious investments in intelligence and expertise in the area of nuclear proliferation for decades.
But there are more pragmatic geopolitical concerns as well — the two countries have a long history, with the earliest diplomatic contacts dating back to the 13th century. Nowadays, France supports efforts to contain Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, a former colony with close ties, and has gotten closer to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main antagonists in the region.
In 2013, when Iran’s secret enrichment site at Fordow was discovered, it was France that took the lead on crippling sanctions, including an oil embargo and a freeze on Iranian central bank assets abroad. During the negotiations over JCPOA in Geneva, with the Obama administration eager to accommodate Iran, France was frequently more hawkish. Then-Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius — who had previously been prime minister in the mid-1980s, when France was hit by a wave of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks — often frustrated his American counterpart John Kerry, once, for example, almost scuttling the Iran nuclear deal over continued operation of the Arak plutonium-enrichment plant.
If Trump does pull out of JCPOA, France’s more balanced Iran policy might point the way forward. The idea to fold nuclear nonproliferation into a broader effort to curtail Iran’s nefarious influence in the region, particularly when it comes to terrorism and Syria. Whether the aggrieved Iranian regime will go along, and whether such a multilateral containment framework can work without American engagement, remains to be seen.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.