When Catherine Margaret Ashton, also known as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, became Europe's top diplomat two years ago, even her husband Peter Kellner expressed skepticism. Upon her appointment, the British people "weren't exactly dancing in the streets," admitted Kellner, president of the YouGov international opinion polling group. Following an unpromising start, Ashton's reputation has continued in one direction: downward.
After one and a half years, the job performance of Europe's first high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy -- as Ashton is officially known -- was so dismal that there was open speculation that she would be replaced. "We are slowly running out of time," warned Elmar Brok, the foreign policy spokesman for Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) at the parliament in Brussels, described Ashton's policies as "ridiculous."
The Briton, who has the "charisma of a caravan site on the Isle of Sheppey," as British journalist Rod Liddle once quipped, has endured the reproaches without complaint. When she is criticized, she dutifully takes notes. She gladly reads off prepared statements. Her strengths lie in her work behind the scenes, she asserts. When she became the EU's foreign policy chief, she said that she was not "an ego on legs," adding: "The skills I bring (are) of negotiation, of diplomacy."
Over the coming months, Ashton will have an opportunity to prove whether this is true. The top EU foreign policy representative currently faces the most difficult mission in international politics. It is her job to negotiate with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
Hardly anyone in the West doubts that the government in Tehran is at least striving to attain the ability to build a nuclear bomb. This would change the balance of power in one of the most explosive regions in the world and presumably trigger a nuclear arms race. Ashton will be playing a diplomatic game with high stakes -- but it is unclear whether there is still any chance of dissuading Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
There have been negotiations in the past, but they all failed due to Iran's intransigence. The country remains determined to develop its nuclear program. This time, the West cannot afford to fail. Failure would, in all likelihood, mean war.
During his visit to Washington last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt that he intends to employ all the means at his disposal, including the use of military force, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities.
Along with the Europeans, US President Barack Obama is hoping that diplomacy and sanctions will persuade Tehran to reconsider. At the same time, he has made clear that he would support an Israeli attack if it were the only way to stop the Iranians. "I do not have a policy of containment," said Obama, "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
That means it's now up to the Europeans to avert a war in a region whose oil reserves constitute the driving force of the global economy. Although the group of countries negotiating with Iran, known as the EU3+3, includes Germany, France, the UK and the US, Russia and China are also members. But it's up to Ashton to take the lead, since Beijing and Moscow are putting the brakes on efforts to put pressure on Iran -- and Obama is not free to act due to the political constraints of the upcoming US presidential election.
The Europeans agree on one point: They categorically reject a military solution. Simply put, they are afraid that a war could cast the entire region into chaos. To make matters worse, military strikes would at best only postpone, not prevent, the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb, according to sources in the German Foreign Ministry. But what if Iran, as so often in the past, is only playing for time so it can advance its nuclear program, undisturbed by outside interference?
Playing for Time
The woman who has been tasked with preparing the talks for the contact group is a German, Helga Schmid. For the past year, the 51-year-old diplomat, who previously worked as office manager for the former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, has served as deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's equivalent of a foreign ministry and diplomatic corps. Schmid enjoys not only Ashton's confidence, but also the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As early as this week, Schmid could meet with Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri -- that's the offer she made to her Iranian counterpart. Schmid and Bagheri have spoken regularly by phone over the past few weeks. The meeting, which would take place in Geneva or Vienna, would be the first official contact since negotiations broke down in January 2011.
Officials in Berlin and Brussels are playing for time. Following talks with Israeli government representatives last week, the German government has the impression that Netanyahu, after receiving assurances from Obama, is not planning to launch a military strike against Iran anytime soon. According to Israeli media reports, Obama has agreed to supply the Israelis with bunker-buster bombs if Israel doesn't attack this year. This would allow Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities themselves if these installations were transferred to deeper bunkers. Israeli government officials, however, deny the reports.
From the viewpoint of the Germans, British and French, such a deal would be beneficial because it would win a bit of time -- and time is a valuable commodity during a crisis. Indeed, according to the plan, a series of talks will take place over a number of months between Ashton and the Iranian senior nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
'We Need Tangible Progress'
Ashton is officially calling on the Iranian leaders to engage in serious negotiations. "We don't want talks for the sake of talks," she told SPIEGEL. "We need tangible progress."
But in reality the Europeans are hoping that negotiations will continue until after the US presidential election in November. If Obama is reelected, he will have to give less consideration to his Republican opponents and the influential Israeli lobby. The US president, who would also like to avoid an attack on Iran, could then exert more pressure on Netanyahu.
In addition to their strategy for the talks, European leaders have agreed to an initial series of concessions designed to entice the Iranians into making a deal. Tehran has rejected all previous overtures.
The latest initiative involves, of all things, the Bushehr nuclear reactor. The facility doesn't have the latest technology. In fact, it was originally built before the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, there is increasing concern among neighboring Gulf states -- but also among Iranians -- that the power plant may not be safe. During the negotiations, the Europeans thus plan to offer assistance in upgrading the reactor's technology.
The West also wants to promise Tehran that it will support Iran politically and economically if it abandons its nuclear course. The Europeans would then also help combat the country's huge drug problem.
Ashton and her high-ranking government contacts across Europe hope that the Iranians are seriously interested in negotiating this time. They point out that Tehran has given written confirmation of its willingness to take part in the talks -- even though the contact group would have been satisfied with a verbal commitment. Furthermore, according to Ashton's aides, the Iranians have for the first time expressed a willingness to negotiate on all aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. The EU diplomats say this is significant progress.
Many observers in the West are convinced that the latest sanctions have considerably increased the pressure on the regime in Tehran, and argue that the measures have brought the Iranians back to the negotiating table. Nobody seems willing to admit that Israel's saber-rattling may have more to do with Tehran's apparent conciliatory approach.
But one thing is certain: Iran will be hard hit by the European oil embargo. The country is the third largest exporter in the world, and 50 percent of the Iranian government's revenues stem from the oil business. The EU estimates that the embargo will cause Tehran to lose one-quarter of its income.
Gasoline has already become exorbitantly expensive and the Iranian currency, the rial, is in free fall. What's more, since Europe and the US have frozen the accounts of the Iranian national bank, the country's financial transactions have also been severely curtailed.
'Israel's Security Is Never Negotiable'
But are the Iranians prepared to compromise? Officials in Berlin appear to be cautiously optimistic. In effect, all they can do is hope for the best. If the talks fail and Israel launches a military strike, Germany, in particular, would find itself inexorably drawn into the conflict.
No other European country has so clearly placed itself at Israel's side. "For me, as the German chancellor, Israel's security is never negotiable," Merkel said in 2008 during a speech to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. "And consequently, in the hour of truth, these cannot remain empty words."
In the German Foreign Ministry, officials were not pleased with this choice of words. They said the speech was reminiscent of the promise of "unlimited solidarity" that then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made to the US after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Merkel has virtually given the Israelis carte blanche to do as they please, complains one top diplomat, who did not want to be named. He nevertheless admits that it is ultimately impossible to remain neutral in such a conflict.
It was primarily Merkel's office manager Beate Baumann who had argued in favor of making a strong commitment to Israel's security in front of the Knesset. If war were declared, so the thinking went, Germany would automatically be obliged to stand by Israel's side, and to a greater degree than other European countries. "If the Israelis want anti-ballistic missiles to respond to an Iranian attack, we will immediately supply them," say sources in the German government. And it's possible that the Germans might be asked to provide more than just anti-ballistic missiles. No wonder Berlin is pinning its hopes on the upcoming negotiations.
Prepared for Failure
The Israelis are far less optimistic. Netanyahu's security advisor Yaakov Amidror says that the West has to be prepared for the negotiations to fail. The Israelis are afraid that the talks will ease the pressure on Iran and water down the threat of military force. The Israeli nightmare would be a series of endless negotiations, which would give the rulers in Tehran an opportunity to continue working on the bomb.
Indeed, the meetings of the past two years don't give much reason for optimism. Ever since the International Atomic Energy Agency was allowed in 2003 to enter nuclear facilities that had remained secret until then, the Europeans and Americans, in particular, have felt deceived by Tehran, time after time.
For instance, Iran resumed its uranium enrichment activities just over a year after it had announced in November 2004 that it was suspending the program. Tehran also rejected an offer from the EU to support the country's bid to become a member of the World Trade Organization. In October 2009, when the US, Russia and France proposed enriching uranium abroad for the Iranian civilian nuclear power industry, Iran turned down the offer. Early last year, Ashton broke off the talks because Tehran was openly playing for time and apparently had no intention of seriously negotiating.
It also remains to be seen whether these sanctions will truly make the regime more amenable. Some officials in the German government are afraid that they could have the opposite effect. They argue that strong pressure from the outside could actually serve to unite the diverse factions of the country's ruling elite. Moreover, since broad segments of the population would suffer the economic impact of the sanctions, it's conceivable that the Iranian government could benefit from widespread solidarity against the West.
'The Very Last Chance'
An additional complicating factor in the negotiations is that nobody in the West really understands the balance of power in Tehran. Does a faction even exist that is willing to renounce the bomb in exchange for concessions from the West? "It's a bit like our former attempts at Kremlinology," says a high-ranking government official in Berlin.
Nevertheless, from a European point of view, there is no alternative to the talks. "These negotiations are the very last chance," says Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. "If they fail, an Israeli military strike is practically inevitable. We have to prevent that at all costs."
What Asselborn means by "at all costs" is clear: "Even if we don't make any substantive progress, we still have to keep the negotiations going."