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

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More