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Trump defiant over Iran deal as deadline approaches

Emmanuel Macron called for a ‘new deal’ to complement the 2015 nuclear agreement.


President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exchanged threats over the Iran nuclear deal Tuesday, with Trump warning that Tehran will face “big problems” if it restarts its nuclear program and Rouhani saying America will face “severe consequences” if it abandons the agreement.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, in Washington on a state visit, called for a “new deal” to complement the 2015 nuclear agreement, covering not just nuclear issues but also ballistic missiles and Iran’s roles in conflicts in the Middle East, including the wars in Syria and Yemen.

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If he convinces Trump that’s worth pursuing, it could buy the nuclear deal more time.

The verbal warfare between Iran and Trump comes ahead of a deadline on May 12 for Trump to decide whether to re-impose some of the economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the nuclear deal. The U.S. president, alongside Macron on Tuesday, repeatedly belittled the Barack Obama-era agreement but didn’t say for sure if he’d walk away from it next month.

“It was insane. Ridiculous. It should have never been made,” Trump said of the deal, warning Iranian officials that if they restart their nuclear program, they’re “going to have big problems, bigger than they’ve ever had before.”

Although Iran has suggested it might restart its nuclear activities should the deal collapse, analysts are divided on whether Tehran would follow through on its threat. Trump’s harsh rhetoric, meanwhile, may simply be a tactic to intimidate Iran to accept new restrictions on its behavior that Washington has been demanding.

Macron’s visit this week is considered a critical moment for U.S. allies and partners who want to keep the deal in place. The French leader, who has a relatively good relationship with Trump, appeared eager to prove to the U.S. leader that he sympathizes with concerns about the limits of the deal.

But Macron also said he doesn’t want to tear up the existing agreement. Rather, he said, the goal is “to work on a new deal with Iran.”

This “new deal” would include four pillars, Macron said. One is to block nuclear activity in Iran in the short term, which Macron noted the existing agreement does until parts of it start expiring in 2025. The other three pillars, he said, are having a longer-term agreement on stopping Iranian nuclear activity, putting “an end” to Iran’s ballistic missile program, and laying groundwork for political solutions to conflicts in countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Iran has significant influence.

Ministers from France and its allies who have already been meeting in small groups to look at ways to deal with Iran could work on establishing such a framework, Macron said. “The purpose is to have some allied powers and we among them and of course also the regional powers to work at the level of this small group” he said. “And will have some discussions with Russia and Turkey on regional topics including Syria. So as from now, we will work using that method in favor — work towards a deal.”

Macron’s idea is akin to a “grand bargain” between world powers and Iran, and it is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon, especially if Iran wants major concessions from the West in return. Whether his pitch buys the deal more time could come down to whether Trump will feel comfortable casting Macron’s approach as a way to “fix” the existing deal, something he’s said he is willing to try before quitting it.

Publicly, at least, Trump was unwilling to commit one way or another to Macron’s ideas on Tuesday, repeatedly using his common phrase “We’ll see” when talking about his options.

“Nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th although, Mr. President, you have a pretty good idea,” he said, referring to Macron. “But we’ll see. But we’ll see also if I do what some people expect, whether or not it will be possible to do a new deal with solid foundations.”

Hassan Rouhani is pictured. | AP Photo

Trump’s frustrations with the nuclear deal are many. He is unhappy that it doesn’t cover Iran’s ballistic missile program, that it doesn’t allow for more intrusive international inspections of suspected nuclear sites and that some of its provisions expiring starting in 10 years.

Trump is also unhappy that Iran’s non-nuclear activities in the Middle East, including its sponsorship of proxy militias in Arab countries, aren’t covered by the agreement. Iran’s regional rise has particularly alarmed Israel and Saudi Arabia, two staunch allies of the United States.

During multiple appearances Tuesday, Trump cited Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom U.S. officials allege is using chemical weapons in his fight aganst rebels. Trump also bemoaned Iran’s role in the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi-led forces have been battling Houthi rebels backed by Tehran since March 2015.

Although the nuclear agreement took years to negotiate and was unveiled just a few months after the conflict in Yemen began, Trump was frustrated that it didn’t cover the Yemen crisis.

“They should have made a deal that covered Yemen, that covered Syria, that covered other parts of the Middle East where … Iran is involved,” Trump said in a press conference alongside Macron.

Earlier in the day, Trump said the Iranians “have been butchers.”

Iran’s leaders, meanwhile, have stepped up their own campaign in favor of the existing deal, which they brokered with the Obama administration as well as France, Germany, China, Russia, and Britain.

Hassan Rouhani is pictured. | AP Photo

The July 2015 deal lifted a broad set of nuclear-related U.S. and international sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on the country’s nuclear program.

Iranian officials warn that they will respond if Trump reneges on the U.S. side of the deal.

“I am telling those in the White House that if they do not live up to their commitments… the Iranian government will firmly react,” Rouhani, the Iranian president, said in a Tuesday speech, according to a Reuters report.

“If anyone betrays the deal, they should know that they would face severe consequences,” Rouhani said. “Iran is prepared for all possible situations.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said in an interview with The Associated Press published Tuesday that if the U.S. withdraws from the agreement, Iran will likely to do same.

“If the United States were to withdraw from the nuclear deal, the immediate consequence in all likelihood would be that Iran would reciprocate and withdraw,” Zarif said. He added: “There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in.”

In an interview that aired Sunday, Zarif told CBS News that his country could resume its nuclear program “at much greater speed.” Zarif insisted, however, that didn’t mean developing nuclear weapons because Iran “has never wanted to produce a bomb.”

Iran has always said its nuclear program was peaceful, meant for energy and scientific purposes. But Western powers have long suspected Iran wants nuclear weapons capability.

Maya Parthasarathy contributed to this report.

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