Macron US visit: French President looks to move Trump on Iran nuclear deal and trade

Andrew Buncombe

Emmanuel Macron has arrived in Washington as the guest of Donald Trump’s first state visit, hoping to persuade the US president not to disengage from the Iran nuclear deal or punish Europe with trade tariffs.

The so-called “Trump whisperer” – Mr Macron appears to have earned the US leader’s respect after engaging in a knuckle-whitening handshake and inviting him and the first lady for Bastille Day celebrations in Paris – is being treated to a private dinner at Mount Vernon, the home of America’s first president George Washington. On Tuesday, he will be the guest of honour at a state dinner at the White House, featuring lobster bisque, lamb with tomato fondue, green beans and sweet potato casserole.

While Mr Macron is known as someone with a taste for fine food, the 40-year-old French leader is coming with a lengthy diplomatic shopping list – on Iran, Syria and trade. His main aim will be to cement the idea in Mr Trump’s mind that France is the go-to nation in Europe.

“He wants France to be primus inter pares among the US allies,” Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Independent. “That will give him much greater room for manoeuvre, both within Europe and globally.”

While some European leaders have created distance between themselves and Mr Trump, especially after his disparaging comments about the relevance of Nato, Mr Macron has sought to build a close relationship. Reports suggest the two leaders speak by phone frequently.

Yet, the worst thing Mr Macron could do, said Mr Dungan, would be to play up the idea he knows how to handle Mr Trump, somebody who notoriously hates to be handled. Rather, he should work on developing the personal chemistry between the two, something Mr Trump believes is the key to good international relations.

“Better to let the policy be made at the policy level, but statesmanship should be done at the statesmanship level,” he said.

Mr Macron is keen to seek support from Mr Trump on several areas – Syria, trade and backing for the Iran nuclear deal, the seven-party brokered agreement that halts Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relief on sanctions.

During the election campaign, Mr Trump repeatedly denounced the deal, which was signed by Barack Obama’s administration. He has said he will decide by the middle of next month whether European nations have fixed what he called “terrible flaws” in the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or whether Washington should pull out.

Ahead of his three-day trip, Mr Macron, who previously urged the US president to keep Washington a member of the Paris Accord on climate change, told Fox News that despite Mr Trump’s reservations, the Iran deal was the best way of dealing with the problem.

“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran? No,” he said. “But for nuclear – what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it.”

Mr Macron, who on Wednesday will deliver a speech to Congress on the anniversary of the day president General Charles de Gaulle addressed a joint session of Congress in 1960, also wants to persuade Mr Trump not to immediately withdraw the 2,000 or so US troops currently operating in Syria.

As the head of a country that has had to repeatedly deal with terror attacks from Islamist extremists, he will argue that a sudden withdrawal could allow those Isis fighters still present in Syria to regroup, despite recent success in destroying their bases.

France recently joined the US and UK in attacking three targets in Syria linked to chemical weapons, following an alleged gas attack the West has accused the Syrian government of carrying out in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Syria and its ally Russia have denied there was such an attack.

“If we leave, we leave the floor to the Iranian regime, Bashar al-Assad and these guys, and they will prepare the new war. They will fuel the new terrorists,” said Mr Macron.

Mr Macron, whose visit will be followed later this week by one from German chancellor Angela Merkel, will also seek to persuade Mr Trump to make permanent the exemptions for the EU to recent tariffs Washington announced on steel and aluminium imports.

Adam Plowright, a Paris-based journalist and author of a recent biography of the French leader, The French Exception: Emmanuel Macron, the Extraordinary Rise and Risk, said Mr Macron will be seeking to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the US from international leadership and Britain’s distraction as a result of Brexit.

“Macron is the only European leader in good standing in the White House – not Germany or Britain,” he said.

Reuters said the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had called on European leaders to support the nuclear deal.

“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Mr Zarif wrote on Twitter.

The news agency said Mr Macron’s visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect US sanctions on Russia could have on their own manufacturing industries.

French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Mr Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminium producers.

“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” it quoted one French finance ministry source as saying. “Europeans... have jointly warned the US administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”