Iran Nuclear Deal: What Merkel Fears Might Happen if Trump Walks Away

Donald Trump's only friend among the leaders in Western Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron, left Washington, D.C., Thursday, apparently having failed to persuade Trump to remain in the Iran nuclear deal. The subject had dominated most of the French president's state visit, but Macron said before he left that he suspected Trump would pull out of the agreement, despite his own efforts to keep the U.S. from walking away by offering an amended deal. Administration officials cautioned that nothing is yet finalized. "We're not there yet," said Brian Hook, the State Department negotiator on Iran with the European allies.

Decision day is May 12—the artificial deadline Trump set for himself and the allied countries (France, Germany and the U.K.) that are party to the agreement along with two non-allies, China and Russia. His charge to them had been to toughen key aspects of the deal including the so-called "sunset clauses" which, critics say, put Tehran on an internationally sanctioned glide path to nukes in about 10 years. Failing that, the U.S. would walk away from the deal which, during the campaign, Trump repeatedly called "the worst ever."

As Macron left, another supporter of the deal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arrived in Washington for her turn to try to persuade Trump not to blow up the deal. She is likely to fail. Trump and Macron love to play up their bromance, with lengthy handshakes and kisses on the cheek. Merkel, by contrast, loathes Trump—and the feeling is entirely mutual.

Trump Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron clasps hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, April 24. Trump and Macron love to play up their bromance. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Trump's decision to revisit the deal—and to pressure the allies to help fix it—has had some effect. Macron came to Washington touting his intention to broaden the deal by including Iran's ballistic missile program, which continues apace, and which the original Iran deal didn't touch; to seek a tougher inspections regime for suspected Iranian nuclear sites; and he was also willing to join with the U.S. to push back harder against Iran's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well its backing of rebels waging a civil war in Yemen. Hook, the U.S. State Department official, had been in Brussels negotiating with his three European partners and said they had made progress on all three issues.

But for Trump, by all accounts, that was not sufficient. The issue he is most concerned with, his aides have said, is the so-called sunset clauses, which allow restrictions negotiated by Team Obama on Iran's nuclear activity to phase out over time. This, from the beginning, has been Israel's major concern as well.

Merkel and her fellow European leaders are unwilling to revisit the deal, saying that any push to renegotiate those clauses will prompt Tehran to walk away entirely—and then sprint toward a bomb. European negotiators have proposed supplementing the sunset clauses with more specific descriptions of the civilian nuclear program (which the agreement allows Iran to pursue), as well as heavy new economic sanctions if the International Atomic Energy Agency believes Tehran is deviating from a civilian course. Diplomatic sources have said Germany is resisting even that, so it is not clear Trump will get anywhere with Merkel on the issue during their meeting in Washington.

A U.S. decision to leave will have huge consequences. It means Trump will ask Congress to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran that had been lifted in the 2015 agreement negotiated by the Obama administration. Those sanctions will almost certainly include "secondary" penalties on any companies doing business with Iran. That puts at risk any number of European companies who are eagerly pursuing deals in Iran—with the Germans front and center. German exports to Iran in 2017 totaled $4.2 billion, up more than one third from the previous year.

The nuclear deal's opponents in Washington believe it is this economic aspect that drives Merkel, not the fear that Iran will bolt and develop a bomb even sooner (a concern they believe is exaggerated). In advance of her arrival, Merkel's critics pointed out that a German company appeared to have supplied parts to one of the Iranian-made missiles that Assad used to deliver chemical weapons earlier this month. They played the history card: "Given the trajectory of German-Iranian commerce, Merkel's determination to keep Trump in the Iran deal might make sense in a vacuum," wrote Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. "But we don't live in a vacuum. Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terror, and Germany has a unique responsibility to oppose atrocities."

Merkel and her European partners might be more swayed by that rhetoric if they didn't know that the Trump administration itself remains divided on the Iran deal. Newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been an outspoken critic, and new national security adviser John Bolton, before taking that job, had called the deal unsalvageable. But Defense Secretary James Mattis begs to differ. Asked in Senate testimony on April 21 whether he still thought staying in the deal was "in the U.S. national interest," Mattis replied, "Yes, Senator, I do."

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-In
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (from left) traverse a literal and metaphoric bridge during the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom, South Korea, on April 27. Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

There is another, new concern those arguing to remain in the deal are making: The North Koreans are watching. Trump—and the rest of the world—saw North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet and call for the eventual "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula. In late May or early June, Trump is to meet Kim one-on-one to discuss exactly that.

The president would love to leave that summit with a dramatic agreement. But American deals with North Korea have failed before: The nuclear deal negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994 ultimately fell apart, and nothing came of the so called "six party" nuclear talks under George W. Bush.

Still, the question is obvious: If the U.S. pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, can Kim Jong Un trust that it will abide by whatever Donald Trump negotiates? Pyongyang is watching. And Bolton knows that as well as anyone. In his memoir of his time as United Nations ambassador, he writes of his frustration with the Bush administration for allowing the U.N. to water down sanctions on Iran, in part because North Korea immediately sought—and received—relief for itself. If Donald the dealmaker really wants a historic agreement with Pyongyang, he may have to swallow what the Europeans are now offering him on Iran.