Can the Europeans save the Iran nuclear deal? It's an accord U.S. President Donald Trump has excoriated repeatedly and threatened to scrap.
Europeans were heartened midweek by indications from the U.S. leader that he's willing to consider French President Emmanuel Macron's plan to augment an accord he considers "insane" by negotiating a side deal with Iran to address Trump's concerns about Iran's ballistic missile development and its expanding military presence across the Middle East.
Nonetheless, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by the Obama administration hangs in the balance, despite the back-slapping, hand-pumping "bromance" between Macron and Trump in Washington. The two leaders continued to forge a personal entente cordiale, but as Macron highlighted in a speech to Congress, the pair is far apart on Iran and Syria, climate change and trade.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has dismissed talk of a re-negotiation, saying midweek he had warned Macron several times of Tehran's refusal to "add anything to the deal or remove anything from it, even one sentence."
The nuclear deal has no fans in the White House. Trump's new national security adviser John Bolton has long argued in favor of scraping the deal, which he believes has thrown an economic lifeline to a regime he'd like to change. Three years ago Bolton advocated in a newspaper editorial that to stop Iran from developing a bomb, Iran would have to be bombed.
And the visits in the past week to Washington by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel inthemost high-profile European push to date to try to convince Trump to preserve the nuclear accord with Iran may not be enough to save it, say political observers.
Even Macron, on his departure from the U.S. capital, suggested he'd failed to persuade Trump to continue with the nuclear deal. "My view — I don't know what your president will decide — is that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons," he told reporters.
On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said no decision had yet been made by Trump.
By May 12, President Trump has to decide whether to renew sanctions relief for Iran, a key step in keeping the deal. Even if he does renew the relief this time, possibly out of respect for Macron, that will be no guarantee against him subsequently scrapping the accord. European officials admit they are skeptical of being up to conjure up a diplomatic solution that will stop him from doing so later.
If Trump does rip up the accord, where would that leave a transatlantic partnership between the U.S. and Europe that won the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and now appears to be at the onset of another one with Vladimir Putin's Russia?
Will it mark the beginning of the end for a transatlantic alliance that has been roiled since Trump entered the White House?
Pessimists, among them former U.S. officials and analysts, as well as European politicians, warn that the U.S. and Europe are drifting quickly toward a fracture — and not just over Iran.
A former political director of the British Foreign Office, Simon Gass, has warned that a U.S. revocation of the Iran deal will push the Europeans into the uncomfortable position of being aligned with Russia and China when it comes to Tehran. "Such a division between the U.S. and some of its closest allies would cause as much dismay in European capitals as it would glee in some others," he said.
America and Europe's foes have been gleeful following other recent sharp divergences between Washington and the Europeans — including over the Paris climate accord, Trump's criticism of what he sees as low defense spending by the Europeans as a percentage of gross domestic product, the imposition of trade tariffs and the threat of a transatlantic trade war. There have been differences over policy toward Russia and China, the conflict in Syria, and abrasive tweet clashes between British and German politicians on one side and Trump over refugee policies and Islam.
Trump foes blame him for the differences and disagreements, arguing he's driving a wedge between America and Europe and that scrapping the Iran deal will lead to a breakdown in the transatlantic alliance.
Optimists point out that America and Europe have been at serious odds before — including over Vietnam, Ronald Reagan's hardline "evil empire" confrontation with the Soviet Union, and the Balkans war. The transatlantic alliance weathered those because ultimately, for all the disputes, American and European interests, more often than not, overlapped.
But will they in the future? Analyst Xenia Wickett says there are several factors shaping the new era in transatlantic relations. In a report she authored earlier this year for Britain's Chatham House research group, Wickett argued Trump may cause "real and meaningful shorter-term disruptions" in transatlantic relations, but heposes "less of a long-term threat to the relationship between the U.S. and Europe" than key structural factors affecting the alliance.
"While his policies may have reverberations beyond his time in office, there is no reason to believe that the consequences are likely to be profound and long-lasting for the fundamental interests of the transatlantic relationship," she wrote.
She cautioned, however, there will be changes in that relationship thanks to migration patterns. "The increase in Latin American and Asian groups in the U.S., and to a lesser extent, Middle Eastern populations in Europe, is likely to cause the U.S. and Europe to continue to diverge in terms of their regional interests and attention," she said.
But for all of the sharp disagreement in recent months there are clear indications that both Washington and the Europeans value the alliance. Trump may have been more iconoclastic than many fervent Atlanticists may like — especially rhetorically — but despite his declaring NATO obsolete and accusing European allies of "ripping the U.S. off," his administration has devoted more U.S. resources for European security, notes Jeffrey Rathke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy institute.
Likewise, Trump temporarily exempted the European Union from recent tariffs imposed on aluminum and steel imports. Rathke dubs all of this a "political zig and zag," and worries that "the United States' alliance relationships are no longer Washington's foreign policy lodestar, as they were for the past 70 years," arguing that the U.S. and the EU are stronger when working together and are more vulnerable when they aren't.
"Confrontation, just like friction, can generate heat and rancor, but it is also necessary to challenge and refine, to hone and polish," Rathke argued in a midweek CSIS commentary. "Now is the time for the United States' closest friends to adapt to these undiplomatic times with a more robust, and if necessary, confrontational diplomacy," he said.
That more confrontational diplomacy by the Europeans was on display this week. In Macron's case it was accompanied by a warmth — and a personal chemistry between the French and U.S. leaders that partly overshadowed their disagreements. Merkel's much more understated visit — three hours compared to three days — was accompanied by a greater chill, but was more cordial than their previous encounters, say analysts.
But that might be the new normal in transatlantic relations, and it could well remain so after Trump leaves the White House, with allies not trying to disguise divergences or cover up disagreements, but talking openly and frankly even abrasively, maybe as only friends can do.