Emmanuel Macron has proposed negotiations on a “new deal” aimed at curbing Iran’s military power and regional activities, to exist alongside a three year-old agreement that restricts the country’s nuclear programme.
Amid the pageantry of a state visit laced with some characteristically undiplomatic touches from Donald Trump, the French president offered the idea of a new deal at a joint White House press conference with his US counterpart as a way of salvaging the 2015 agreement, which Trump has threatened to leave.
The offer seemed calculated to appease the US president’s discontent with the current agreement, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) by proposing a broader initiative to tackle other elements of Iran’s challenge in the region, particularly its ballistic missile programme, and its military role in Syria.
“I always said we should not tear apart the JCPOA and have nothing else,” Macron said. “This would not be a good solution.” But it was unclear if Trump had agreed.
Macron is on the first state visit to take place during Trump’s presidency. The two presidents have gone out of their way to stress their personal chemistry, planting a tree on the White House south lawn, holding a dinner at George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon and hugging, hand-holding and cheek-kissing at the White House on Tuesday, where a traditional arrival ceremony featured nearly 500 members of the US military and a booming 21-gun salute.
But the intimacy took an awkward turn when Trump took Macron by surprise, ostentatiously brushing what he said was dandruff from the French president’s jacket. “We have a very special relationship, in fact I’ll get that little piece of dandruff off,” Trump said. “We have to make him perfect – he is perfect.”
Saving the Iran nuclear deal would be a diplomatic coup for Macron, who has taken a political gamble in befriending a US president who is deeply unpopular in Europe.
At a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, Macron observed that while Trump saw the Iran nuclear agreement as “a bad deal”, he believes it is “not sufficient” and proposed a new deal, that would complement the JCPOA.
“I’m not saying, we are moving one deal to another,” Macron said, but added that the JCPOA was just one aspect of the problems Iran presented.
He said that while the JCPOA restricted Iran’s major nuclear activities until 2025, a new deal would go further, imposing a permanent check on those activities, while also limiting the country’s development of ballistic activities, and its military operations across the region, particularly in Syria.
The new agreement would include regional powers, like Russia and Iran, who are involved in the Syrian conflict.
The French president said his White House discussions with Trump “make it possible to pave the way for a new agreement”. He also insisted: “France is not naive when it comes to Iran. We also have a lot of respect for the Iranian people … but we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
In their remarks, Trump and Macron both hinted heavily that they were close to an understanding.
Referring to his decision on 12 May on whether to continue signing presidential sanctions waivers, Trump suggested he had confided his intentions to his French counterpart. “Nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th,” he said, turning to Macron and adding: “Though Mr President, you have a pretty good idea.”
“We can change and we can be flexible. In life, you have to be flexible,” Trump concluded at the end of the joint press conference.
Macron said that US and French officials were working “intensively” together to fashion a new common approach to Iran and the region.
“Regarding Iran, we have a disagreement regarding the JCPOA but I think we are overcoming it by deciding to work towards a deal, an overall deal.”
At one point, however, Trump issued a blunt warning: “If Iran threatens us, they are going to pay a price like few countries have ever paid.”
The US president was also asked about previous hints that he will withdraw US troops from Syria, where he, Macron and Theresa May recently coordinated airstrikes in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.
“I would love to bring our incredible warriors back home,” he said. “But Emmanuel and myself have discussed the fact that we don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean, especially since we really control it to a large extent … We are discussing Syria as part of an overall deal.”
The US president’s upcoming meeting with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, was also in the spotlight. In comments earlier on Tuesday, he raised eyebrows by describing Kim as “very open” and “very honourable”.
Later Trump denied that the US had made any concessions in agreeing to the talks. “The end result is: we’ll see. Maybe good things will happen and maybe we’re all wasting a lot of time.”
Pressed on what denuclearisation meant, he said: “It means they get rid of their nukes. Very simple. They get rid of their nukes … It would be very easy to make a simple deal and claim victory. I’m not going to do that. I want them to get rid of their nukes.”
Meanwhile Trump admitted that Dr Ronny Jackson, his choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, would soon make a decision on whether to withdraw after the emergence of allegations about inappropriate behavior on the job and overprescribing prescription drugs. “It’s totally his decision,” the president said.
“I told Admiral Jackson just a little while ago, I said, ‘What do you need this for?’ This is a vicious group of people that malign and they do and I lived through it,” Trump said. “I said, ‘What do you need it for?’ He’s an admiral, he’s a great leader. And they question him about every little thing.”
Jackson’s hearing had been set for Wednesday at the Senate veterans affairs committee but was indefinitely postponed amid the allegations.
Trump, Macron and their wives attended a state dinner on Tuesday night.
Although French diplomats dismiss media talk of a “bromance”, this is the sixth time the two presidents have met, with the most notable being Trump’s trip to Paris for the Bastille Day parade on 14 July last year. Since Macron came to power, the two presidents have had about 20 phone calls together, according to the Elysée Palace.
At the end of their opening remarks on Tuesday, Trump declared: “I like him a lot.”
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