Joseph Bahout is a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East program and a frequent contributor to Diwan. His research focuses on political developments in Lebanon and Syria, regional spillover from the Syrian crisis, and identity politics across the region. Bahout, who is Franco-Lebanese, recently participated in the French delegation that accompanied President Emmanuel Macron to the United States, where Macron met with President Donald Trump. Diwan interviewed Bahout in late April to discuss the visit, in particular the nuclear deal with Iran, whose fate Trump is expected to decide upon on May 12.  

Michael Young: President Emmanuel Macron expects President Donald Trump to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, this month. In light of this, what was his real aim when he discussed the Iran nuclear deal with the U.S. president?

Joseph Bahout: Macron arrived in Washington convinced that the United States was almost certain to pull out of the JCPOA. The French party was well aware that President Donald Trump’s decision was largely based on domestic political calculations, given that Trump had promised many times during his election campaign to “scrap the deal” and seems determined to reverse the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Macron’s reasoning was the following: If there was a 5–10 percent chance that the U.S. might not pull out of the deal, one had to exploit this and offer Trump enough reasons and arguments that would tempt him to remain within it. Thus the “generous” nature of Macron’s offer, which could lead some observers to conclude that it was the French president who had finally sided with Trump.

Macron’s proposal had four components: First, remaining in a more robustly implemented and verified JCPOA, and not imposing new sanctions. This would represent a carrot for Teheran and was, of course, something the Europeans were keen to see, due the their commercial ties with Iran. Once this was “conceded” to Iran, France and the Europeans would promise Trump to work toward adding three other pillars to the JCPOA: addressing the “sunset” clauses, after which Iran would be able to resume its enrichment of uranium, and guaranteeing that Tehran, as Macron stated in his speech before Congress, would “never” become a nuclear power; adding provisions that would limit and frame Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, which is related to the nuclear issue of course, but is also linked to the conventional weapons threat to the region; and reaching a comprehensive agreement that would build a collective security architecture to curb and contain Iran’s irresistible push toward regional hegemony and destabilization, from the Gulf to the Levant.

Of course, all this was constrained by the deadline for Trump to take a decision on the JCPOA, namely May 12. The U.S. president did not hint at what his final decision might be, despite his warm relationship with Macron. This is where the French offer had a second component, one that would attempt to mitigate the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal. Macron tried to convince his American counterpart of a withdrawal that would keep certain dynamics alive—such as the possibility for the Europeans to continue dealing with Iran—if only to keep Iran tied to an agreement and not undermine the chances of resuming negotiations in the foreseeable future. And, on that basis, France and Europe would then open a new chapter of talks with Teheran, to agree a completely new package that would encompass the four pillars mentioned earlier.

However, it’s undeniable that if the U.S. does pull out, the JCPOA will be in serious jeopardy, especially if Iran not only considers the deal to be null and void, but also withdraws from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, pushing the world into a new crisis like the one with North Korea.

MY: From your reading of the U.S. side in talks with Macron, what do you perceive is its outlook on the U.S. role in the Middle East in the coming years?

JB: The French offer to Trump on Iran had a very strong regional component, with all its ramifications. Here, the rationale was to try to exploit the obvious built-in contradictions in Trump’s approach to the Middle East, with his firm desire for the United States to increasingly disengage from the region’s many crises. On that front, Macron played on a sensitive part of Trump’s psyche, namely his obsession not to replicate Barack Obama’s approach. Thus, by mentioning that U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East was the prolongation of a strategy put in place by Obama, the chances were quite significant that Trump would be more attentive to an argument pleading for the contrary!

MY: What did Macron tell Trump?

JB: This rationale was fully adopted on the Syrian issue. Here, Macron repeated what he had already said to Fox News on eve of the visit, knowing he was addressing a pro-Trump audience. He stated that a premature withdrawal from Syria, at least the eastern part of the Euphrates River Valley, would in fact create a vacuum that Iran would hasten to fill. Thus, such a move would be self-defeating when Trump seeks to prevent Iran’s hegemony in the region. Macron insisted that a U.S. pullout would only replicate what Obama did in Iraq in 2009, which not only handed the country to Iran but also accelerated the emergence of the Islamic State. In short, Macron’s plea to Trump was a way of saying that both the anti-Islamic State battle and the containment of Iran were far from being achieved, and that U.S. retrenchment would guarantee their failure.

MY: In what ways did France’s approach to the Middle East help or hurt Macron in making such a case to Trump?

JB: If one wanted to be objective, it would require offering a critique of the contradictions in the French position too. Both sides can agree that Syria and Iraq are places where Iran’s influence is very significant, but the situation in Yemen and Lebanon would have required a similar approach. Yet in Yemen, any strong anti-Iran approach would mean doubling down on the war waged by the Saudi-led coalition. However, both the U.S. and the Europeans have increasingly been voicing criticism of that adventure and discretely advising Riyadh to find an exit. On Lebanon, a firmer stance toward Iran would mean tightening the screws not only on Hezbollah but on the Lebanese state itself, perceived by many as an extension of the militia. Yet Macron has taken a very different approach to the country, consistently supporting its leadership and government, and recently organizing a major economic conference in Paris designed to bail out a broken and failed Lebanese state. 

On that level, there is also a potential downside of Macron’s audacious wager with Trump. By leaning in Trump’s direction in order to try keeping the United States as much as possible in the nuclear deal with Iran, or something resembling it, he risked antagonizing Iran. Potentially, this may weaken France’s  chances of positioning itself as a broker of a new nuclear deal if Trump pulls out of the existing one. Macron was aware of this, which is why he reached out to Teheran before and after his U.S. visit. Prior to his trip to Washington, Macron sent his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to Iran with an outline of what he would propose to Trump. Shortly after the summit, he called Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to revive the idea of visiting Iran, preferably sooner rather than later.

MY: Macron delivered a rebuke to many of Trump’s values or policies in his speech before Congress. Does this suggest that the purported closeness between the two men is really just an illusion?

JB: Much has been written about this “bromance” between the two presidents. It is a fascinating relationship indeed, between two men who are almost entirely opposed. But they are also similar in their transactional approach to politics in defense of their country’s national interests and their perception of being disrupters of an established order in their respective countries. It is not too exaggerated to say, again, that Macron fully grasped Trump’s psychology. He is a man who wants to be wanted and loved, who likes to be flattered, and who needs a world-class counterpart to appear as a friend. Macron is known as a charmer, and someone tactile, and he played that card to the hilt. His aim was to use the cozy relationship with Trump to try to reason with him and keep a volatile president within reach. In this way, Macron is the only Western leader today to have this level of access to a U.S. president many in the world fear and suspect.

There are limits to this approach, particularly in France, where Trump and what he stands for are deeply despised and feared. This is why Macron does not refrain from systematically criticizing and taking his distance from what Trumpism represents in terms of policies, ideology, and values. Whether it was before Congress, at George Washington University during a townhall meeting with students, or during the final press conference he held minutes before embarking on his flight back to Paris, Macron forcefully stated his views on international trade, climate, immigration, personal freedoms, populist nationalism, and even Syria and other regional issues. All his remarks were opposed to what his new American friend has supported.

The key to understand this apparent contradiction is twofold: Macron claims to be a Gaullist, meaning that during his time in office he considers himself to be the incarnation of the French nation, as Donald Trump is the incarnation of the American nation for as long as he is the president of the American people. As such, he has to deal with Trump regardless of the two men’s personal bonds, because Macron feels a profound sense of mission, that of lifting France to the forefront of the global scene once again. And second, Macron has elevated his balancing act on issues—denoted by his frequent use of the term “en même temps,” or “at the same time”—to a doctrine of sorts, whereby you can hug, kiss, and cajole your counterparts, while at the same time stating how much you disagree with them.