News / Europe

End of Mandate for EU's Ashton Raises Questions Over Iran Talks

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the start of talks in Vienna, May 14, 2014.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the start of talks in Vienna, May 14, 2014.
Reuters
— As Iran and international negotiators work towards a July deadline to complete an accord with Tehran on its nuclear program, 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 finalized 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.

Common Touch

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.
 
“(But) personalities matter and her departure would at least at the margins impair the atmosphere and momentum.”
 
Ashton has presided over diplomacy with Iran during the most significant developments for years, including the signing of an interim deal last November under which Tehran agreed to scale back some of the most delicate aspects of its program in return for limited sanctions relief.
 
That deal followed a resumption of formal negotiations in early 2012, after the European Union and the United States cranked up sanctions because of mounting concerns that Iran may be seeking the capability to make an atom bomb. Iran denies it has any military intentions.

The negotiators, the experts

The key question is what sort of personality might replace Ashton when her mandate expires.
 
Nominations will only formally emerge in the coming weeks and months, and even then the candidate may only be decided at the last minute. Once named, the candidate must be vetted and approved in hearings before the European Parliament, and only then can begin to think about priorities. Delays on the European side could easily prompt the same from Tehran.
 
Depending on which country the new foreign policy comes from, who it is and what the state of play is with Russia by that time, it may be that Iran slips down the agenda. What's more, the new foreign policy chief may have a different manner and approach.
 
“Ashton was chosen because she wasn't going to be bullish in her foreign policy. She is the voice of consensus, soft-spoken,” said Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
 
“If there is someone more vocal, that could change the dynamics of the talks.”
 
Among the names mentioned as possible successors are Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, and his Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski, both vocal on issues ranging from economic sanctions to trade and defense policy.
 
Since both have had to drive their countries' foreign policies, they are less accustomed to playing a shepherding role and more inclined to take the driving seat - a potentially disruptive change of attitude from the Iranian point of view, not to mention the U.S., Russian or Chinese perspective.
 
Ashton's departure could also mean her team of negotiators leaves, to be replaced by people chosen by her successor, complicating technical aspects of the negotiations.
 
Officials say it is not clear whether Helga Schmid, the EU's German-born top negotiator, would stay in her post after the changeover, despite having forged close ties with her Iranian counterparts since 2011.
 
And in a further element that could shape the future, Ashton's successor will to a large extent determine what sort of relationship the EU has with Iran if a nuclear deal is struck.
 
Companies from Europe and the United States will be eager to seize trade and investment opportunities in Iran as and when Western sanctions are lifted.
 
But at that stage the EU may also have to consider Iran's human rights record, a long-term bugbear that has not figured in the nuclear talks but could well become critical as future trade and investment ties are discussed.
 
“(Ashton) had the luxury of not having to think about that,” said Daniel Keohane, an analyst with the FRIDE think tank.

You May Like

Video On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Simon from: Melbourne Australia
May 23, 2014 4:01 PM
Israel has never threatened the destruction of any state unlike the majority of Muslim States and most significantly Iran. If your very existence is threatened it is obviously encumbant on you to avail yourself of any means to safeguard your people.


by: Johnny
May 21, 2014 3:08 PM
Israel has no intention of destroying the middle East and Europe, contrary to Russia's actions in the Ukraine and Syria's internecine war where thousands of civillians have been killed and many survivors forced to flee. Russia has supported the Syrian Government throughout, a fact which is indisputable.


by: Anthony Bellchambers from: London
May 20, 2014 10:59 PM
We have to wonder whether the ordinary citizen of Berlin, Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing or New Delhi really understands that the state of Israel is reliably estimated to now possess up to 400 undeclared nuclear warheads plus a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, making it the most powerful possessor of WMD after the US and Russia?

Whilst Iran has no nuclear weapons whatsoever, Israel has already the capacity to destroy the entire Middle East and most of Europe?

It is the most extraordinary, global confidence trick ever perpetrated and yet 28 European governments, that are themselves at risk of nuclear attack, are happy to support a status quo that could see their countries reduced to rubble in any military confrontation.

The entire current global scenario is so bizarre yet is, in fact, the tragic reality of our time that one small state on the eastern Mediterranean has been allowed to become a global hegemon. And a change in the EU Foreign Minister will not alter that fact.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid