Catherine Ashton’s Iran Legacy

by Eldar Mamedov

The EU will usher in a new foreign policy chief come November. The anti-Kremlin Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has already expressed his desire to take on Catherine Ashton’s position as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

While the changeover will result in a new face for EU foreign policy, the departure of Ashton, who presides over negotiations between the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) and Iran, should not necessarily be seen as a setback. The Baroness focused heavily on Iran’s nuclear program and should be commended for the long hours she devoted to this issue over the past 4 years, but the new chief could take a broader and more strategic view of the EU’s relations with Tehran.

In all the Middle East’s current conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war, and Europe’s growing need to diversify oil and gas supplies following Russia’s advances in Ukraine, Iran has an important role to play. Had the EU engaged with Iran on these issues earlier, more trust could have been established, which could have produced quicker, more effective progress in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. The failure to make headway in the last round of talks in Vienna last month — the situation that Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif likely tried to mend during their unexpected Istanbul meeting — is a reminder of the fragility of this process, despite last year’s historic interim agreement.

This fragility exists, to a great extent, because the EU as a whole has failed to fully capitalize on the diplomatic opening offered by the 2013 presidential election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate centrist with ties to various political factions in Iran. Instead it focused narrowly on the nuclear issue and conditioned any improvement in relations upon a final nuclear deal.

To be fair, this was not entirely the fault of Ashton and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the fledgling EU Foreign Service she leads. In the EU system, the European Council, representing EU member state governments, not the EEAS, determines all major EU foreign policy decisions. Yet the High Representative sets the agenda, exercising leadership and building consensus with and between the nation-states. The failure to engage more broadly with Iran was as much a conscious choice at the helm of the EEAS as it was a product of institutional constraints. It is true that some influential countries in the Council, notably the UK and France, took a tough stance on Iran. Others, however, like Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Poland and now Germany under its social-democratic foreign minister, were much more open-minded about broader engagement. But the EEAS opted for the more conservative British-French approach.

Even within these confines, however, the EEAS could have promoted diplomatic initiatives, such as the opening of the EU delegation in Tehran, much more forcefully. The European Parliament has repeatedly asked for this in its resolutions on Iran, and has even set aside the budget appropriations. The delegations of European MPs to Iran at the end of last year were meanwhile advised by EU diplomats that opening an EU delegation in Tehran would be a highly useful step. The EEAS, however, keeps passing the ball to the Council, and the issue remains stuck.

The human rights dialogue between the EU and Iran serves as an example of another wasted opportunity. Zarif offered Ashton a re-launch of this dialogue during last year’s United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Yet the EEAS has not taken up his offer because in EU parlance “human rights dialogue” must be extensively structured, with clear and demanding benchmarks, which, according to sources in the EEAS, Iran would not likely accept. What matters, however, is not what this process is called, but starting a conversation with key Iranian stakeholders on human rights issues, including, crucially, the conservative judiciary.

Talking human rights to Zarif and other Foreign Ministry officials is akin to preaching to the converted. Meaningful change requires engagement with the problematic bits of the Iranian establishment. Indeed, the fact that even hard-line figures, such as top prosecutor Mohsen Ejei, are calling for revisions in Iran’s death penalty policy indicates that there is some space to engage them on this issue. That may be too little to satisfy broader demands for the liberalization of Iran, but even a modest reform in Iran’s application of the death penalty could change people’s lives.

Yet Ashton’s high profile visit to Tehran in March 2014 did not produce any progress on this matter. She met with human rights defenders, such as Narges Mohammadi, but shortly after her departure 45 political prisoners who were set to go on furlough to spend the Iranian New Year with their families were suddenly prevented from taking their leave. The Iranian judiciary should obviously be blamed for this, but some Iranian human rights advocates were also frustrated by Ashton’s apparent lack of understanding about the power of the judiciary. The meeting may have provided her with political cover against criticism for talking to Iranian officials back home in Europe, but the effectiveness of her initiative on the human rights issue in Iran was questionable at best. The aftermath could have been avoided if the visit was part of a broader strategy of engagement with Iran, which included human rights. But the EU’s narrow focus on the nuclear issue prevents such a strategy.

The EEAS must also seriously engage with the European Parliament and European public opinion on explaining the benefits of rapprochement with Iran. This has not been the case during Ashton’s tenure. Indeed, European MPs were irritated by her failure to show up for the debate on the European Parliament’s resolution on relations with Iran adopted April 3. The move was explained, unofficially, by the High Representative’s reluctance to expose herself to scathing criticisms from the European right, which, like its American counterpart, sees the nuclear talks as a concession to Iran. But it might have been more useful to make a clear, bold case for the deal and broader engagement with Iran, which would have also aided Ashton’s role in the negotiations.

All this goes to show that the new High Representative will have his or her work cut out for them when it comes to Iran. They will not only preside over the nuclear talks if a deal is not reached before November, but must also develop a new European strategy of engaging with Iran beyond this issue. There is no shortage of ideas in the academic and policy making communities on this matter, including within the EEAS itself. But getting those ideas to the top levels of the EU decision-making apparatus, and investing the political capital required for follow-ups, will be a challenge. Of course, deepened engagement on a broader range of areas would create the trust necessary to solve the nuclear issue, the EU’s focal point on Iran.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. An interesting informative post. Perhaps those who demand that the human rights issue be included in the negotiations, might understand how the demands they insist upon, will not produce the desired results at this time. This is not to say that they shouldn’t be addressed, but because of the narrow window the discussions are in, precludes them as an equal at this time. The cracks in the regime are showing, so it’s to the advantage of everyone who want the desired changes to occur, but they won’t be instant, which some demand. There is no magic wand to be waved that is going to change this fact, but with a deal on the nuclear issue, then the other issue[s] can be addressed.

  2. Carl Bildt, the charming Swedish FM, has also been tossed around as a replacement. He would be a good choice. Apparently there’s a wikileaks document going around detailing how Bildt made millions on the Iraq war. More recently Bildt has been pushing hard for war with Russia.

    In between he has found time to transform Sweden’s foreign ministry into a Gripen fighter sales team. But the Swedish fighter, built by Saab, has been tainted by allegations of corruption and bribery. The Swiss parliament recently voted against buying the Gripen.

    If Bildt becomes the EU’s next foreign policy king it may give him an inside track on a possible Gripen sales contract to Iran. Such a deal may go a long way to repairing relations between Iran and the EU. And who knows, the Gripen may serve as a deterrence against possible air strikes from a hostile nation.

  3. Who will succeed Ms. Ashton will certainly matter, however, the most critical part is the working relationship with United States, and whom ever is chosen would need to heed this. As such, it would be of prime importance to have excellent coordination with UK. Should the internal political issues of EU be resolved, the organization could serve as a very important bridge and ameliorate differences between the two main parties, Iran and the US.

    Diplomats with vision and courage this is the time to step up to the plate!

  4. Just have to respond to Norman’s comments about human rights. Human rights are an integral part of any international treat discussion. In fact, during negotiations over NAFTA, how human rights were being dealt with in the US and Mexico became a central issue in those trade discussions. In Iran’s case, the EU has correctly called into question Iran’s appalling human rights situation as a basis for not moving forward with a nuclear deal…not as a condition, but as evidence that Iran’s leadership cannot be trusted to fulfill the terms of any agreement. This is a substantial stumbling block that the next policy chief will have to wrestle with, but given the state of mind of members such as France and Germany, it’s inevitable that talks with Iran will continue to stall unless something changes significantly within the Iranian government.

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