President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday. (Michael Reynolds / EPA/Shutterstock)
President Trump hosted two European leaders this week who lobbied him to stick with the Iran nuclear deal, but there was little indication their efforts swayed his urge to walk away from the landmark pact.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on his first full day on the job, said Friday in Brussels that it was “unlikely” Trump would remain in the accord after a self-imposed May 12 deadline, barring a “substantial fix” negotiated with European leaders.
Speaking on the margins of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit for foreign ministers in Brussels, Pompeo said that no decision has been made but that he was communicating Trump’s position to allies in Europe and the Middle East.
“Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal,” said Pompeo, who next visits Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan.
In Washington, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Trump at the White House on Friday for a three-hour working session. Iran topped the agenda, along with Syria, trade and NATO.
European allies have warned that leaving the 2015 multinational Iran accord would have dangerous consequences and might encourage Tehran to resume its now-blocked nuclear program. U.S. and European diplomats have met several times to negotiate possible supplemental agreements to address Trump’s concerns.
“I set out my position, and … obviously, this agreement is anything but perfect,” Merkel said at a joint news conference. “It will not solve all the problems with Iran. It is one piece of the mosaic, one building block, if you like, on which we can build up this structure.
“We will now see what sort of decisions are made by [the] American partners,” she said, adding that the United States and Europe “ought to be in lockstep” on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump repeated his characterization of the Islamic Republic as a “murderous regime” that was the driving force behind militant groups across the Middle East. “We must ensure it doesn’t even get close to a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Trump would not say whether he had an alternative to the nuclear deal or whether he would use force to stop Tehran from resuming its nuclear program.
“I don’t talk about whether or not I’d use military force. That’s not appropriate to be talking about,” he said. “But, I can tell you this, they will not be doing nuclear weapons; that I can tell you, OK? They’re not going to be doing nuclear weapons. You can bank on it.”
Merkel met with Trump two days after French President Emmanuel Macron made a similar pitch during a state visit to Washington. The United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China signed the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, and United Nations monitors have repeatedly found Iran in compliance with its terms.
Under the accord, Iran destroyed or dismantled the bulk of its nuclear infrastructure and shipped its nuclear fuel out of the country under strict monitoring. In exchange, a network of international economic sanctions were eased and seized property, including cash held in U.S. banks, was returned to Tehran.
Trump has said he will decide by May 12 whether to pull out of the accord and unilaterally reimpose U.S. sanctions on Tehran. It’s unclear how quickly he would apply sanctions, however, which could buy time for further negotiations.
Trump and other critics say the accord is deficient because it lets some of the nuclear restrictions on Iran expire over time. They also complain that the nuclear negotiations did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East.
Merkel concurred that Iran has inserted itself in its neighbors’ crises with support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces against rebel fighters, some of them allied with the U.S.
But she noted Iran had permitted frequent inspections by U.N. monitors under the nuclear accord. The critics argue that the inspectors do not have access to Iranian military bases and facilities.
“We are of the opinion that the [accord] is a first step that has contributed to slowing down their activities,” Merkel said. “But we also think, from a German point of perspective, that this is not sufficient in order to see to it that Iran’s ambitions are curbed and are contained.”
Merkel and Trump also discussed NATO and tariffs he plans to impose on steel and aluminum producers, chief among them Germany.
He has repeatedly complained about members of the NATO military alliance that do not yet spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense, as they agreed at a summit four years ago. Merkel indicated she and Trump did not come to terms on the tariffs question.
“We had an exchange of views,” she said. “The president will decide.”
The freewheeling Trump and the staid Merkel have had a decidedly tense relationship — months went by last year when they reportedly didn’t even speak by phone — but the chill appeared to ease somewhat Friday.
Trump appeared to acknowledge his lack of popularity in Europe but added his own twist.
“They may not like Donald Trump, but you have to understand,” he said, “that means I’m doing a good job.”