Playing for Time: Europeans Take Lead on Iran Nuclear Negotiations
The Europeans want to play a key role in the ongoing conflict with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, jumpstarting stalled negotiations in a bid to prevent Israel from taking military action. But can the EU’s hapless foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who will lead the talks, make a difference?
When Catherine Margaret Ashton, also known as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, became Europe’s top diplomat two years ago, even her husband Peter Kellner expressed skepticism. Upon her appointment, the British people “weren’t exactly dancing in the streets,” admitted Kellner, president of the YouGov international opinion polling group. Following an unpromising start, Ashton’s reputation has continued in one direction: downward.
After one and a half years, the job performance of Europe’s first high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy — as Ashton is officially known — was so dismal that there was open speculation that she would be replaced. “We are slowly running out of time,” warned Elmar Brok, the foreign policy spokesman for Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) at the parliament in Brussels, described Ashton’s policies as “ridiculous.”
The Briton, who has the “charisma of a caravan site on the Isle of Sheppey,” as British journalist Rod Liddle once quipped, has endured the reproaches without complaint. When she is criticized, she dutifully takes notes. She gladly reads off prepared statements. Her strengths lie in her work behind the scenes, she asserts. When she became the EU’s foreign policy chief, she said that she was not “an ego on legs,” adding: “The skills I bring (are) of negotiation, of diplomacy.”
Over the coming months, Ashton will have an opportunity to prove whether this is true. The top EU foreign policy representative currently faces the most difficult mission in international politics. It is her job to negotiate with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
Hardly anyone in the West doubts that the government in Tehran is at least striving to attain the ability to build a nuclear bomb. This would change the balance of power in one of the most explosive regions in the world and presumably trigger a nuclear arms race. Ashton will be playing a diplomatic game with high stakes — but it is unclear whether there is still any chance of dissuading Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
There have been negotiations in the past, but they all failed due to Iran’s intransigence. The country remains determined to develop its nuclear program. This time, the West cannot afford to fail. Failure would, in all likelihood, mean war.
During his visit to Washington last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt that he intends to employ all the means at his disposal, including the use of military force, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities.