By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a state visit likely to be dominated by differences over trade and the nuclear accord with Iran.
As Macron headed west, the Iranian government urged European leaders to convince U.S. President Donald Trump not to tear up the 2015 deal between Tehran and six world powers. Allies also spoke out in support of it.
Macron said on Sunday there was no “Plan B” for keeping a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
He is on something of a rescue mission for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump has said he will scrap unless European allies fix what he called “terrible flaws” by mid-May.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on European leaders to support it.
“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.
The deal reached between six powers – all of whom but Germany are nuclear-armed – and Tehran put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Macron said on Fox News Sunday that it would be better to protect the deal instead of to get rid of it as there was no other plan.
“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran? No. But for nuclear — what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it,” he said.
Macron’s visit is the first time Trump has hosted a state visit since he took power in January 2017. While the French leader has tried to develop a close relationship with Trump since he took office in May, he has so far seen little tangible results on issues from Iran to climate politics.
The two men will get a sense of their two countries’ shared history during an evening meal on Monday night at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War commander whose alliance with France was critical to victory over the British.
Working meetings will be held at the White House on Tuesday before Macron addresses Congress the following day, the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960.
Trump and the 40-year-old French leader began their friendship a year ago in Belgium with a jaw-clenching handshake. While some other European leaders have kept a certain distance from Trump, Macron has worked hard to remain close to the U.S. president and the two leaders speak frequently by phone.
Highlighting the difficulties Macron will face reversing Trump’s mind on Iran, U.S. non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford said Tehran presented a very real long-term challenge.
“Iran (is) a country that for years illegally and secretly sought to develop nuclear weapons, suspended its weaponization work only when confronted by the potentially direst of consequences without ever coming clean about its illicit endeavors,” he told a non-proliferation conference in Geneva.
Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.
Macron also wants to persuade Trump to exempt European nations from metal tariffs that are part of the U.S. president’s plan to reduce chronic trade deficits with countries around the world, chiefly China.
His visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect that U.S. sanctions on Russia will have on their own manufacturing industries.
French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminum producers.
“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” a French finance ministry source said. “Europeans…have jointly warned the US Administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”
The official said France, Germany, Italy and Ireland were working together on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Trump in Washington later in the week.
Macron and Trump are also due to discuss Syria, less than two weeks after the United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens in Douma, Syria.
Macron said last week that he believed he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, though Trump has been insistent on bringing them home.
(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)