WASHINGTON — French President Emmanuel Macron comes to Washington this week with two important items on his agenda: keep American troops in Syria and keep U.S. President Donald Trump in the Iran nuclear deal. Macron will have a tough sell to an American president whos made clear he wants out of both. His only chance is to meet Trump in the middle, giving him a political win at home that serves French interests at the same time.
Its no secret that France never liked the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). French officials privately concede all the flaws of the deal — the missiles, the inspections, the sunsets — and mourn the loss of economic leverage over Irans regional expansion. But they also insist that France will not support making changes to a done deal, which is why the ongoing transatlantic talks initiated by Trumps demand to “fix” the accord are likely to end with an American exit.
Outside the context of the JCPOA, however, Macron, based on his public comments, does not appear all that soft on Iran or its proxies. In February, he called for international surveillance of Irans ballistic missile program, claiming a “mechanism of sanctions and control” was “indispensable for the security of the region.” While playing host to Saudi Arabias new crown prince, he called for “greater efforts to limit Irans ballistic activity and regional expansionism.”
Given his strong interest in Syria, Macron should be most disturbed by the resources Iran keeps pouring in to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. The Central Bank of Iran is processing billions of dollars of transactions for the purpose of supporting Assads regime and shadow army: Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and a wide range of Shia militias.
Trump has set May 12 as his deadline to “fix or nix” the nuclear deal.
As long as Iranian money flows and Iranian-backed Shia militias expand their influence, Assad will remain in power with a dangerous sectarian dynamic that could enable a resurgence of the Islamic State. That poses a direct threat to French security interests. If Macron wants to see an end state in Syria without Assad and without a base for ISIS to launch attacks, he needs more than a U.S.-led military deterrent; he needs to turn off Irans financial spigot as well.
From Trumps point of view, Frances position on the JCPOA contradicts its stated objectives for Syria. Macron wants Trump to keep the U.S. military deployed in Syria not just to prevent the return of ISIS, but to boost the odds of brokering Assads departure. But at the same time, the French position on the JCPOA prevents any reimposition of financial sanctions on Iran, ensuring Assad will face much less economic pressure to abdicate and forcing U.S. troops to stay in Syria indefinitely.
Trump campaigned against endless foreign wars. He is unlikely to commit the U.S. military to a longer-term presence unless he can show the American people that allies like France are holding up their end of the bargain by taking the strongest possible action to pressure Assad, too.
There is only one way for Macron to chart a course that aligns Trumps political needs with his own in a way that strengthens the security of both countries. He must be ready to slap sanctions back on the Central Bank of Iran.
Trump has set May 12 as his deadline to “fix or nix” the nuclear deal. The date coincides with the next deadline for him to suspend U.S. sanctions against Irans central bank — an action that is necessary every four months under American law. If the president isnt happy with the European fix proposal, its likely he will not only reimpose the central bank sanctions, but also move to collapse the JCPOA entirely by triggering the United Nations Security Councils sanctions snapback procedures and reimposing all other suspended U.S. sanctions.
Iran has poured resources in to propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad | Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images
There is an alternative, however. Even if Trump refuses to issue another central bank sanctions waiver, he doesnt have to trigger a total snapback. And that gives Macron an opening: to convince the U.S. president to keep negotiating a fix with Europe and hold off on triggering the return of multilateral sanctions.
The price for Macron? Accepting the legitimacy of reimposing sanctions on Iranian banks, even the central bank, and removing them from the SWIFT messaging system — not on the basis of nixing the JCPOA, but on the basis of holding Iran accountable for Syria. He should also pledge to dry up funding for Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard by designating them for terrorism in their entirety.
Nothing in the JCPOA precludes the West from reimposing sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear illicit conduct. Iran might not like it, but the nuclear deal didnt give the mullahs blanket immunity to expand illicit conduct in other areas.
Its up to Macron. Keep Trump in Syria by helping him ratchet up pressure on Iran and giving him the win of following through on his threat to reimpose sanctions on Irans central bank. Otherwise get ready to watch him leave Syria and the JCPOA entirely.
Richard Goldberg, an architect of congressionally enacted sanctions against Iran, is senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.