The European high priestess of foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, arrived in Iran yesterday amid high expectations after the breakthrough talks last year made it look like Iran was ready for some compromise over its nuclear programme. Ashton, who mediated the nuclear talks between World Powers and a recalcitrant Iranian regime, enjoys a good working relationship with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the mild-mannered trusted diplomat educated in the West.
The Iranian regime has been making conciliatory noises over its nuclear programme, the development of which was seen by the West as a dangerous signal for world peace. President Hassan Rowhani told a US television network days before he was going to speak at the United Nations in New York, that Iran had “time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is on record saying that nuclear weapons are inconsistent with Islamic values. Ashton’s visit started yesterday with the news that Israel had escorted to the Red Sea port of Eilat a ship allegedly ferrying Syrian-made rockets from Iran to Gaza. Tehran has denied the allegation, which saw Israel accusing the regime of carrying out subversive activities in disguise. However, the clever diplomat that she is, Ashton is expected to sidestep the news and focus on more pressing issues — the nascent thaw in relations between Iran and the West.
The West, led by the United States, has targeted Iran with crippling sanctions for quite a long time after reports emerged that Tehran was enriching uranium for developing a nuclear weapon. The hubris-laced and arrogant approach of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had fanned the fire and relations with the West, especially ties with Washington, dived to an all time low. After the election of Rowhani as the new president and the stewardship of the Foreign Ministry by Zarif, things have been looking better. Ashton would have underscored the improvement in ties with Tehran and the continued momentum building up in relations with the West as areas of priority in her dossier. The astute diplomat has the hard but achievable task of creating a milieu for sustainable improvement in ties. She would have to balance the flaws in the Iranian approach with the weaknesses of the West’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Tehran. The result that she achieves should be able to outsmart glitches and kinks that might occasionally show up in the Islamic Republic’s relationship with western powers.
The political and economic delegation arriving with Ashton is likely to open wide-ranging talks that can chart a historical course in ties between Tehran and the 28-nation European Union. Brussels should look optimistically at the new window that has opened in bilateral ties with Tehran and plan to leverage it for better economic and trade relations.