EU’s Ashton to handle Iran talks beyond November deadline
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EU’s Ashton to handle Iran talks beyond November deadline

Outgoing European foreign policy chief said to lead P5+1 nuclear negotations even after she’s replaced by Italy’s Federica Mogherini

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, left, walks next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a photo opportunity prior to the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on Tuesday, October 15, 2013, at the United Nations offices in Geneva. (photo credit: AP/Fabrice Coffrini, Pool)
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, left, walks next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a photo opportunity prior to the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on Tuesday, October 15, 2013, at the United Nations offices in Geneva. (photo credit: AP/Fabrice Coffrini, Pool)

Despite plans to leave her post, the European Union’s outgoing foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will remain in charge of the West’s negotiations with Iran even beyond the November 24 deadline, diplomatic sources in Europe said Monday .

While some Iranian and European voices express optimism that a final agreement will have been signed by then, Israeli officials are more than skeptical that the Islamic Republic is willing to make the concessions necessary for any deal.

Ashton has been leading the group of six world powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — that are currently conducting talks with Tehran since 2010. Her term as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy ends on October 31, three weeks before talks with Iran are slated to close.

The British-born Ashton will be replaced as EU foreign policy chief on November 1 by Federica Mogherini, who currently serves as Italy’s foreign minister. But Mogherini will not initially inherit the Iran file, diplomatic sources in Europe told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It was widely understood that Ashton would continue to head the talks until November 24, but Ashton is expected to hold on to the Iranian nuclear file even beyond that date, in case the two sides fail to sign an agreement and the talks are extended once more, the sources said.

Tehran and the so-called P5+1 are set to resume negotiations Thursday in New York aimed at coming to a final status deal by the November 24 deadline — exactly one year after the two sides signed an interim agreement in Geneva.

An earlier deadline had been set for July, but was extended after the sides failed to come to terms.

Officials in Jerusalem refused to comment on the record about Ashton’s performance as the West’s chief negotiator with Iran, or to express hopes and anticipations for Mogherini’s term as future EU foreign policy chief.

In personal conversations, however, officials say they expect Mogherini, who is considered less experienced in Middle East affairs, to be generally more favorable to Israel.

“Israel would prefer, and continues to prefer, no agreement over a bad agreement” with Iran, a senior official told The Times of Israel on Monday. “We are doubtful that the Iranians will agree to seriously curtail their nuclear program and therefore the only option for a deal appears to be a bad deal, which is not desirable.”

Italy Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini smiles as she meets the media during an informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Ministers, in Milan, Italy, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. (Photo credit: AP/Luca Bruno)
Italy Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, Aug. 29, 2014. (Photo credit: AP/Luca Bruno)

Mogherini is a member of Italy’s center-left government led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is known to be generally friendly toward Israel and tough on Iran.

In April, she made headlines when she suggested that Iran could play a positive role in the Syrian civil war, but at the same time warned that “in no possible way” should the regime be allowed to acquire military nuclear weapons capabilities.

At a press conference after her nomination in August, she said her future “challenges are huge,” listing crises in Europe, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. She did not mention Iran.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, welcomed Mogherini’s appointment at the time, saying that “we have common ground both in terms of opportunities… as well as cooperation in order to address common challenges.”

On September 4, Zarif and Mogherini met in Rome and discussed the nuclear negotiations. “We clearly share the same perspective on the need to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue by November, which could allow greater stability and security in the region,” the Italian foreign minister told her Iranian counterpart, who heads the negotiations for the Islamic Republic. “I hope negotiations will lead to a positive agreement and within the established time.”

At a joint press conference, Zarif declared his wish for a “closer relationship” with the EU and said Italy could be a “bridge” between Europe and the Islamic world. “This role could be strengthened with the appointment of Mogherini as EU top diplomat,” he said.

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