End of mandate for EU’s Ashton raises questions over Iran talks

May 21, 2014 - 1:19:23 am
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif prior to the talks between the E3+3 (France, Germany, UK, China, Russia and USA) and Iran in Vienna recently.

BRUSSELS: As Iran and international negotiators work towards a July deadline to complete an accord with Tehran on its nuclear programme, a practical issue may be on their minds — ­the looming changeover of the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

Catherine Ashton, the British baroness who has held the EU’s top foreign policy post for the past five years, may not be the critical decision-maker in the talks, but she has been the prime coordinator of the negotiations since 2010.

The role requires her to work with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to present a clear and united position, while trying to build trust with the Iranians to keep the sensitive talks trundling along.  Ultimately, it is Iran and Washington who will determine if a deal is done. But Ashton’s shepherding of the process has won her accolades and helped silence some of her many detractors.

She may not be an international stateswoman in the making, but her upcoming departure could complicate diplomacy at a critical time, potentially exposing the talks to risks. “Her departure will create a gap, even if temporarily,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “Personal relations matter too, in fact enormously.”

All sides are still hoping a deal can be finalised by July 20, potentially making history. If that’s the case, Ashton would be able to see the diplomacy through - her mandate does not finish until the end of October.  But given the sensitivity of the talks, constant concerns raised by outside parties like Israel and deep divisions between the sides, delays are possible: a round of negotiations in Vienna last week made less headway than hoped.

A delay would mean a new EU foreign policy chief taking over, someone with less familiarity with the issues or rapport with the Iranians. Alternatively, although it is unlikely, it could result in the baton being handed to another, non-EU party, which might reset the clock from Iran’s perspective.

Ashton, 58, a former nuclear campaigner, social worker and hospital administrator who was made a baroness for life by Britain’s Labor party in 1999, had no foreign policy experience when she was unexpectedly named to her post in December 2009.

Despite those shortcomings and a difficult time early in  her tenure as she battled to establish herself, she is said to have forged a close personal relationship with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, her counterpart in the talks. Zarif occasionally addresses her as Cathy.

While it may be a small matter in an incredibly complex set of negotiations, Ashton’s common touch — she has a northern English person’s aversion to high ceremony — appears to have helped her engage with Zarif. It may not clinch a deal, but it allows the parties to stay engaged.

 “At the root, these talks will be decided on national interest, not personality,” said Cliff Kupchan, Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.Reuters

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