As It Happens

Europe can still save Iran deal after Tehran rejects talks with U.S., says EU adviser

With the United States and Iran ratcheting up tensions, the special advisor to the European Union's top diplomat insists there's room for the Europeans save the nuclear deal and avoid a possible conflict.

European Union has 'probably 120 days' to convince Iran it can deliver on the pact, says Nathalie Tocci

Iranian worshippers burn a representation of a U.S. flag during a rally after Friday prayer in Tehran, Iran, on May 10, 2019. A top commander in Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said that Tehran will not talk with the United States, an Iranian news agency reported‚ a day after U.S. President Donald Trump said he'd like Iranian leaders to 'call me.' (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

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Tensions are rising between the U.S. and Iran. That's left the European Union scrambling to salvage the international agreement that's kept Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

On Wednesday, Iran's president threatened to withdraw from parts of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), unless the Europeans can find a way to protect them from crippling U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has added fresh sanctions and is deploying a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf.

Nathalie Tocci is an adviser to the Federica Mogherini, the European Union's top diplomat. Tocci spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Rome. Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Tocci, how high are the stakes right now for those trying to de-escalate things between the United States and Iran?

Well, the stakes are sky-high — particularly for Europe, the European Union — for a number of reasons. I mean, clearly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — i.e. the Iranian nuclear deal — is a key element in the global nonproliferation regime, that obviously sets a precedent. It is a key element contributing to Middle East security, or at the very least not to exacerbate further Middle East insecurity.

National security adviser John Bolton talks to reporters outside the White House in Washington on May 1. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

And, then finally — and perhaps I would say even most importantly — it is a key case that ultimately proves that multilateralism, multilateral diplomacy and international law, actually deliver and still can deliver. And obviously, without these elements, we could not have a rules-based international system that we're all so attached.

Okay. But it seems that the White House, and in particular U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, thinks that what they're doing — being tough with Iran, and imposing these sanctions increasing them — is working. They seem convinced that they are doing the right thing, and that you're not. What do you say to them?

Well, I would say that the point really here is that we have fundamentally different objectives. The objectives of the European Union, as far as the JCPOA is concerned, is that of the containment of the Iranian nuclear program. And that is in-and-of-itself the aim. We do not have any hidden aims. The point of the Trump administration, first and foremost of which is John Bolton who you cite, is actually a fundamentally different aim: it's that of a regime collapse in Iran.

What is very clear is the fact that, in fact, some of the non-renewal of the sanctions waivers of the United States actually make it impossible for Iran to comply with the JCPOA. Now as for the question, "Is the U.S. strategy aimed at a regime collapse in Iran actually delivering?" Well, frankly speaking, I don't see an Iranian regime on the verge of collapse. I didn't see Iran's strategy in the Middle East — Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East — actually having changed over the last year. It doesn't seem to me to be delivering at all.

Nathalie Tocci is an advisor to Federica Mogherini, the European Union's top diplomat. (Submitted by Nathalie Tocci)

And some have gone further than you're saying, and say the objective of the United States and John Bolton is to start a war with Iran — that this escalation is hoping that the Iranians will make a bad move, and that it will justify some kind of a strike. Do you think that's possible?

I don't think it's possible, because to be honest, I don't think the United States has the military capability of actually conducting a war in Iran. I mean, they can certainly go to war. The point is that they want to win it. I mean, they haven't exactly been able to win a war in Iraq, and it's a country that is incomparably smaller and weaker. So I don't think that it is a realistic objective.

Now of course, you're absolutely right in saying that ultimately if diplomacy — if that is excluded as a possibility, then the road is opened leading up to war. And this is actually precisely the reason why Europeans are so concerned about the current escalation, and why we are ultimately not only insisting to the United States that this can only lead to many tears, but we are also trying to persuade the Iranians that it is actually not in their interest either to fuel further, and ultimately to play the U.S. game, because this is what it's all about.

The USS Abraham Lincoln deploys from Naval Station Norfolk, in the vicinity of Norfolk, Va. White House national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement that the U.S. is deploying the aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region, an area that includes the Middle East. (Kaitlin McKeown/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press)

And that's what I guess people are suggesting — that John Bolton is counting on that they will stumble into this and that there will be a reason for some kind of of an intervention.

I think you're absolutely right. This is what Bolton actually would probably like to see happen. I mean, ultimately we're talking about someone who has not had these views on Iran over the last year. I mean, you know, there's a track record there that dates back to the Bush administration. So clearly, this is the intention.

Now, you know, to sort of give an optimistic sense of all of this, I actually think that this is crystal-clear to the Iranians too. And in fact although President Rouhani has actually mentioned that Iran is no longer willing to simply abide by its side of the deal if the other side is not willing to do its bit, but actually if one reads what Rouhani actually said, we're not actually talking about Iranians actually restarting their nuclear program in a significant way — at least not yet.

We at least have not only 60 days — I would say probably 120 days — to actually be able to do something that demonstrates to the Iranians that we can actually deliver on our side of the bargain.

Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.