Iran Nuclear Talks Europe's Unsung Chief Diplomat

The European Union's foreign policy apparatus is often written off as trivial. But its leader, Catherine Ashton, is the one whose tenacious diplomacy has brought the West and Iran back to the table to negotiate Tehran's nuclear program and related sanctions.


By and in Brussels

The title she puts on her official business card -- "High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy" -- has an illustrious ring. But, in reality, Catherine Ashton's job is rarely glamorous. After she was appointed to the position in 2009, the British diplomat had to endure being called the "fourth choice" in the press -- and even a "garden gnome." And while her counterparts from the United States and Asia zip around in their own jets to summit meetings, Ashton has to patiently wait for commercial flights because the EU doesn't treat her to an official aircraft.

But now the 57-year-old baroness is suddenly at the center of world diplomacy. And whenever she is mentioned, she earns praise for her hard-nosed negotiating skills, her stamina and her diplomatic talents. It is said that US Secretary of State John Kerry has much faith in her. "She is discrete and perceptive, but also tenacious. That makes her an ideal negotiator," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the head of Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the European Parliament and a member of its Committee on Foreign Affairs.

What's the cause for all this enthusiasm? After negotiations about the Iran nuclear issue appeared on the brink of collapse, the main parties are finally returning to the table. The next round of talks is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Geneva. The West's aim at the meetings in Switzerland is to test whether the Iranians are actually "serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions," as US President Barack Obama said Monday evening after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

The word in diplomatic circles is that this diplomatic renaissance can primarily be attributed to Ashton. In recent months, she has spoken on the phone four times with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who studied in the United States and gives the impression of being effectively pro-West.

Ashton was the one who came up with the idea of bringing Zarif together with representatives of the P5+1, the international group in charge of negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program that is made up of Germany and the five permanent member states on the UN Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the UK and the US. As a result, the often quarrelling group has embraced Ashton as its chief negotiator.

She, in turn, is doing her part to see that the new Iranian government focuses on fostering better relations between Iran and the European Union. "One of the main objectives of the new Iranian foreign policy is to put aside misunderstandings and to begin a new political era via a better understanding," Iranian President Hassan Rohani recently wrote to Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.

Chances of a Thaw in Relations?

Leaders in Tehran welcomed the fact that, in early September, the European Court of Justice stated that some of the EU sanctions against Iran should be lifted. The court ruled to annul the 2011 acts of the European Council that froze the funds in Europe of seven Iranian companies and one Iranian national, all of which had been identified as being involved in nuclear proliferation, on the grounds that its allegations hadn't been sufficiently substantiated and that there had been certain procedural errors.

Of course, it has already happened many times that official talks have begun on Iran's nuclear program and ended in stalemate. But representatives with the P5+1, also known as the Group of Six, claim to have the impression that the new Iranian government is serious about things this time around. What's more, the West assumes Rohani has secured the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, to launch his diplomatic charm offensive.

Iranian negotiators have let it be known they want to resolve the nuclear dispute within six to 12 months. Furthermore, during the election campaign, Rohani pledged to his supporters that he would improve Iran's economic situation, which can only happen if international sanctions are lifted.

Hard-liners in Tehran, who oppose any compromises related to the nuclear program, are keeping a close eye on Rohani. This has prompted him, for example, to turn down President Obama's offer to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly currently being held in New York. Indeed, Rohani already sparked fiery protests at home after speaking on the phone with Obama in what was the first official contact between Iranian and American heads of state since 1979.

Likewise, the new Iranian government has yet to make any substantial concessions. But time is running short for the West, and a report published in August by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stating that Iran is continuing to pursue its uranium-enrichment activities unabated, has only increased the pressure. At the White House on Monday, Netanyahu repeated his warning that the West should not let itself be hoodwinked by Tehran's charm offensive, stressing that: "Iran is committed to Israel's destruction." President Obama also struck a tough note, saying: "It is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient."

EU diplomats have ruled out lifting the sanctions against Iran before the country at least agrees to halt uranium enrichment. European Parliament member Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, for example, is wary. "Rohani finds himself in a situation that is similarly complex to that of the new pope, Francis," the foreign affairs expert says. "Both are trying to break up an encrusted system. And, at this point, no one knows whether they will succeed or whether those backing the status quo will prove to be too powerful."


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Jim in MD 10/01/2013
1. Fairy Tale
Gregor-Peter Schmitz has done it again! It has nothing to do with Rowhani, Obama or Obama's diplomacy of presenting a united front with sanctions. No, it's Lady Ashton! After abject failure between European nations and Libya and Mali and Afghanistan and Syria; Lady Ashton has brought peace in our time. The reporter clearly should switch to the Russian Times, where his "analysis" would be valued as reality.
antonyabbott 10/01/2013
2. Don't believe the hype
The EU must be spending some of its 2 billion advertising budget. Just how she became the second best paid female politician on earth despite never winning an election even in her home country I will never know. Baroness Ashton is considered 'a joke' by foreign governments & prompts serious disquiet in Europe’s corridors of power. Ashton has already been voted the least useful of the European Commissioners by her peers in Brussels. She is a mere puppet & her role as the EU’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs is purely ceremonial, she holds no actual power despite having a huge budget.
pmoseley 10/01/2013
3. der Spiegel was wrong and biased
So now Catherine Ashton is the flavour of the month in Der Spiegel's eyes. Not very long ago, they repeated a description of her as 'boring as a wet afternoon on the Isle of Sheppey'. She has always described herself as someone who works most efectively behind the scenes and she has now been proved right. Now Der Spiegel is eating its own words and admitting the same.
anthonybellchambers 10/01/2013
4. optional
Whatever happens in the negotiations with Iran, we are still left with a maverick nuclear state on the Eastern Mediterranean whose own nuclear capacity has to be neutralised. That can only be achieved by economic sanctions in the form of withdrawal of trading rights until such time as Netanyahu or his successor agrees to a Nuclear Weapons Free Middle East. That must and will happen – sooner rather than later. The international community cannot be held to ransom for much longer by the stratagem of ‘nuclear ambiguity’ that has so contaminated the political scene for the past fifty years since JFK’s assassination. The paradigm shift has been a long time coming but the suspicion and concern that Netanyahu now elicits is proof of a sea change in international opinion. If Netanyahu succeeds in procuring President Barack Obama to risk the lives of American servicemen by attacking a non- nuclear Iran to meet the political agenda of an Israeli cruise-missile state, will future American electorates ever again put a black Democrat in the White House, at least for the next hundred years, if the present incumbent subsumes the national interest of the Union to the military and political will of an expansionist, WMD-rich, nuclear, Mediterranean state, promoted by it’s foreign lobby In Washington?
History Hacker 10/02/2013
5. The Return of Women
Merkel, Viviane Reding, Catherine Ashton usher in a new era in history. The alpha males are falling by the wayside, while the capacity of women to provide empathy and leadership has arrived. Not a minute too soon.
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