Emmanuel Macron came, saw and conquered Washington this week. But the French president is trying to do something much harder than generate buzz and goodwill. He is trying to stop Donald Trump from dividing the Western alliance and disrupting the (already turbulent) Middle East. Watching him at work — flattering Trump, then politely disagreeing with him, all the while proposing compromise solutions — is like watching a skilled dancer execute a complex set of moves. It remains to be seen if Macron can pull it off, but thank goodness he is trying.
Macron believes that "Donald Trump will get rid of the Iran deal for domestic reasons," he told me and a small group of journalists on Wednesday. What will ensue, he predicted, is "a period of tension." That might be an understatement. Tehran has signaled that if Trump pulls out of the deal on May 12 — when he faces a deadline on whether to restore sanctions on Iran — the most likely result is that Tehran would also withdraw from the deal. And as Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me on Monday, "Once we withdraw, all the restrictions on our nuclear program end."
Zarif argued that, in the accord, Iran made a much stronger pledge than most realize. "President Trump does not seem to have read the agreement. The third line of it states: 'Iran commits to never developing nuclear weapons.' There is no time restriction on that. The word we use is 'never.' The time restrictions relate to voluntary limits on our nuclear energy program that we have undertaken to give the international community confidence that we are sincere in our intentions."
Macron is not so sure that Iran would withdraw from the deal. "If Iran pulls out as well, the U.S. might put very tough sanctions on it and things would spiral downwards," he said. He plans to urge Iran's President Hasan Rouhani to temper the Iranian reaction and agree to find a new way forward.
Macron has pushed Trump privately and publicly to keep the Iran deal. "It sets a terrible precedent for the world's leading power to renege on an agreement that it spearheaded and signed," he said. And Macron sees it as part of a dismaying pattern from an administration that has decided to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, weakened its commitment to the World Trade Organization and now seems determined to scuttle the pact with Iran.
But Macron is also critical of Iran. "Since the agreement was signed, Iran has made some decisions. It expanded its regional interventions [in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria]. It has strengthened its ballistic missile arsenal. It appears to have used the proceeds from sanctions relief to fund its militias and external operations more than provide relief to its population. All these decisions have consequences," he said.
In any event, Macron is determined not to wring his hands, but rather to find a way forward. Hence his artful proposal for a new nuclear deal. While this may sound like Trump, Macron is actually suggesting something quite different. The first pillar of his new approach is adherence to the existing nuclear deal, unamended and unabridged. But he proposes three additional pillars that would address Iran's ballistic missile program, counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, and extend the commitments Iran has made beyond various timelines in the current deal (which range from 8 to 25 years).
In other words, were Iran to agree to start talking about these new issues, the current deal would stay intact. It's not clear that the Iranian government would accept this demand. And it's not clear that Trump would agree to a framework in which the agreement that he has branded "the worst deal ever negotiated" would remain in place. Both sides would have to climb down from their positions.
One Iranian who is well-versed in the issues made an interesting observation about why the nuclear deal has had so many critics in both Washington and Tehran. For 40 years, America and Iran have settled into a pattern of behavior. America sees its role as applying pressure and threats to Iran, while Iran thinks its role is to bravely resist. The nuclear deal was an effort to break with the past and create a new dynamic of dialogue. But it generated a backlash in both countries.
Macron is trying to forge a new path for dialogue and diplomacy. If he fails, it will be because too many in Washington, and even in Tehran, have gotten comfortable with the old pattern. By mindlessly sticking to it, they seem to be leading us down a path of tension, conflict and, perhaps, even war.
Fareed Zakaria hosts CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," and makes regular appearances on shows such as ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet The Press." He has been an editor at large Time magazine since 2010, and spent 10 years overseeing Newsweek's foreign editions. He is a Washington Post (and internationally syndicated) columnist. He is author of "The Post-American World." For more of Fareed Zakaria's reports, Go Here Now.