Ashton Seeks to Revive EU Role in Iran Nuclear Talks

Ashton Seeks to Revive EU Role in Iran Nuclear Talks

By Johan Bergenäs

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, are currently involved in a diplomatic dance over resuming talks on Tehran's nuclear program. If the talks do indeed come to fruition, Ashton could assume the negotiating role previously played by her predecessor, Javier Solana. While Solana's diplomatic efforts ultimately did not bear fruit (.pdf), the circumstances that hampered his attempts to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff -- namely, the lack of U.S. participation and Iranian perceptions that the country had little to gain by talking with Europe -- have since improved and could be capitalized on by Ashton.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, are currently involved in a diplomatic dance over resuming talks on Tehran's nuclear program. If the talks do indeed come to fruition, Ashton could assume the negotiating role previously played by her predecessor, Javier Solana. While Solana's diplomatic efforts ultimately did not bear fruit (.pdf), the circumstances that hampered his attempts to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff -- namely, the lack of U.S. participation and Iranian perceptions that the country had little to gain by talking with Europe -- have since improved and could be capitalized on by Ashton.

The current opportunity for negotiations follows a period of increased tensions between Iran and much of the international community. Only days after the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1929 on June 9, which slapped another round of sanctions on Iran for not complying with international nonproliferation rules, Ashton addressed a letter to Iran calling for the resumption of talks between the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran, and inviting Jalili to meet and "discuss nuclear weapons issues and to take forward the twin-track approach." The letter followed months of similar overtures from Ashton. Although Jalili's July 7, 2010, response denounced the new sanctions, other Iranian officials have maintained that they are open to negotiations with the West.
 
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Solana's efforts at negotiating with the Iranians -- especially in the E3/EU format (Great Britain, France, Germany and the EU) that ended in 2006 -- were significantly handicapped by the absence of productive U.S. contributions. In an interview, Avis Bohlen, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control and American ambassador to Bulgaria, stated that "clearly there was very little chance of [success for the E3/EU-Iran negotiations] without U.S. involvement."

Most importantly, without the U.S., Solana could not ensure what Iran desires most: a credible guarantee of national security. One senior European diplomat directly involved in the negotiations said that the E3/EU negotiation team was unable to put the words "security guarantee" into the various offers because "the Americans were either not in agreement or, while accepting to discuss [this option], could not accept that this would be in the offer itself."

Hassan Rohani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator throughout most of the E3/EU-Iran talks, has admitted that besides playing for time, Iran did not have much to gain from negotiating with the E3/EU. Middle East expert Dr. Chen Kane, in analyzing a speech (.pdf) made by Rohani in 2004, wrote that the Iranian official "regard[ed] the Europeans' offers to support Iran's membership in the World Trade Organization, to invest in Iran's civil aviation, agriculture, and oil and gas industries, and to conclude a new trade agreement with Iran as providing 'no immediate benefit for [Iran].'"

Now, although tensions between Iran and the West continue to run high, the prospects for negotiations, should they take place, are significantly improved by two promising developments.

First, in contrast to his predecessor, U.S. President Barack Obama considers engagement with Iran a fundamental component of the American strategy vis-à-vis Tehran's nuclear program. A U.S. State Department spokesperson recently reaffirmed that the Obama administration remains willing to meet with Iranian negotiators. While Washington is unlikely to offer a carte blanche security assurance to Iran, the Obama administration maintains that "all options" are on the table. While usually understood to mean potential military strikes against Iran's nuclear installations, these options presumably also include providing Iran a security assurance if such a diplomatic tool would expedite the ultimate goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Second, on the same day that Ashton received Jalili's reply, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, became the first senior Iranian official since the new U.N. Security Council resolution was adopted to admit that international and unilateral sanctions could slow progress in the country's nuclear efforts. Salehi said that while sanctions "will not stop" Iran's nuclear program, "[o]ne can't say sanctions are ineffective." The statement is in stark contrast to Iran's usual rhetoric, which consistently denies that outside pressure has had an impact.

If in fact these new circumstances can be capitalized on, Ashton's overtures to Iran represent a significant first step. Since taking office on Dec. 1, 2009, Ashton has made the Iranian nuclear issue one of her office's top priorities. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2010, with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in attendance, she called on Tehran to be more transparent and responsive to the IAEA as well as to efforts by the international community to engage Iran over its nuclear program. Similar calls were made during a trip to the Middle East in March and at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in May. In short, Ashton has made it very clear that she and the P5+1 will not accept Tehran's nuclear hedging, but rather will stand ready to apply increased pressure. At the same time, Ashton has emphasized the importance of negotiations by actively pursuing them, and said in a recent interview that she thought negotiations with Iran would begin in the fall.

Of course, the prospects for new talks may simply be the result of yet more Iranian posturing, drawn from Tehran's past nuclear playbook of deceit, obfuscation and stalling. However, if Tehran does come to the negotiation table, its negotiators will not only see a new face in Ashton, they will also be confronted with a fundamentally different dynamic than under Solana's diplomatic quest. This is an opportunity that Ashton and the P5+1 should pursue without delay.

Johan Bergenäs is a research associate with the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

Parts of this essay were drawn from interviews conducted with current and former U.S. and EU officials for a forthcoming article in the November 2010 issue of the Nonproliferation Review.
 
 
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19.07.2010
 
 

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