President Trump’s close friendship with French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to produce a diplomatic breakthrough Tuesday for the Iran nuclear deal, with the two men agreeing to work together to impose more restrictions on the Islamic regime outside for the 2015 agreement’s framework.
Mr. Macron is the leading lobbyist for an effort by European powers to keep Mr. Trump from renouncing the deal, which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for lifting international economic sanctions. But the French president on Tuesday moved closer to Mr. Trump’s harsh critique of the agreement, which Mr. Trump repeated at length in a series of public events.
Mr. Macron said at a joint White House press conference that he always felt the agreement that halted Iran’s nuclear weapons development until 2025 was insufficient.
“We therefore wish, from now on, to work on a new deal with Iran,” Mr. Macron said.
Mr. Trump issued his strongest response to date to threats from Iran to restart its suspect nuclear programs if the U.S. pulls out of the 2015 deal negotiated under President Obama.
“If Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few other countries have ever paid,” said Mr. Trump, denouncing the existing accord as “insane.”
The opening for a renegotiation of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was the most striking outcome from Mr. Macron’s state visit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Washington later this week to reinforce the message that Mr. Trump can get tough on Iran without unilaterally withdrawing the U.S. from the nuclear accord.
“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,” Mr. Macron said.
Iran has also stepped up its rhetoric in recent days as Mr. Trump faces a May 12 deadline to decide whether to effectively take the U.S. out of the deal, which was also signed by France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia.
“I am telling those in the White House that if they do not live up to their commitments … the Iranian government will firmly react,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday, according to the Reuters news service. “If anyone betrays the deal, they should know that they would face severe consequences.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that quitting the deal would undermine Washington’s hope of securing a separate deal with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons by showing that the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep its word.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron, although sharply opposed on issues including Iran, trade and climate change, forged an unusually close personal relationship during Mr. Trump’s visit to Paris for Bastille Day last year and in more than 20 phone calls.
At the press conference, Mr. Macron, a onetime banker who defied France’s political establishment to win the presidency last year, called for hammering Iran with additional demands that likely pleased Mr. Trump. The states in the European Union are trying to forge a separate accord addressing Mr. Trump’s main critiques of the deal, including a permanent ban on Iranian nuclear weapons, a halt to Tehran’s ballistic missile tests and a political deal to contain Iran’s destructive influence in the region.
Many have expected the U.S. to withdraw next month, but Mr. Trump said Tuesday that he is weighing his options.
“Nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th,” he said, adding that Mr. Macron might have a clue. “It’s a bad deal. It’s a bad structure. It’s falling down. Should have never, ever been made. I blame Congress. I blame a lot of people for it.”
Michael C. Desch, director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, said Mr. Macron and his European counterparts were giving Mr. Trump a way to stay in the deal.
“My instinct is that he wants to save the JCPOA and is trying to throw President Trump a few bones,” he said. “No one in Europe has any interest in scrapping JCPOA, so raising the prospect of ‘fixing’ JCPOA’s alleged flaws via new negotiations is an ideal way to kick that can down the road.”
Beyond the policy skirmishes, Tuesday’s events provided yet more evidence of the unlikely personal rapport that has developed between the two men. During a series of meetings and social events, including a state dinner, the two leaders reveled in their mutual admiration by exchanging hearty handshakes, hugs and air kisses on both cheeks.
Palling around in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump joked that reports of their close relationship was, for once, not a media creation.
“Finally, it’s not fake news,” Mr. Trump told reporters before the one-on-one meeting.
He joked at one point that his French visitor had dandruff on his dark suit jacket and brushed Mr. Macron’s shoulder and lapel.
“We have to make him perfect. He is perfect,” Mr. Trump said as Mr. Macron smiled at his host.
But there were other serious matters to discuss beyond the atmospherics, including Mr. Trump’s recent declaration that he wants to pull U.S. troops fighting Islamic State out of Syria as soon as possible. France, Britain and the U.S. collaborated in targeted strikes on the chemical weapons infrastructure of Syrian President Bashar Assad this month, and European leaders have been unnerved by the idea of an abrupt U.S. pullout as the Syrian civil war endgame plays out.
Asked by Mr. Macron to reconsider the U.S. mission in Syria, Mr. Trump said he still wants to withdraw U.S. troops but also wants to leave a lasting “footprint” on the war-torn country.
“We are going to be coming home relatively soon,” he said.
The Pentagon has about 2,200 troops in Syria supporting the militias battling Islamic State. The U.S. mission is supposed to be distinct from rebel forces battling the Assad government.
“We’ve finished with ISIS, and we are going to be making some big decisions in a short period of time,” said Mr. Trump.
He said he would continue discussions with Mr. Macron before announcing those decisions.
Mr. Trump added near the end of the press conference, “We can change, and we can be flexible. In life, you have to be flexible.”