Commentary Magazine


Ashton, Not Obama, in Charge of Iran Talks

Laura Rozen’s account of the behind-the-scenes action during the Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul undermines the notion that President Obama is in control of the P5+1 diplomatic process that he fiercely defended during the weekend. As Rozen’s reporting makes clear, it is the European Union’s Catherine Ashton who was clearly in charge of the affair, and as long as that fierce critic of Israel is calling the shots, it’s unlikely the Iranians will surrender their nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, by championing Iran’s right to nuclear development, which could be ultimately used for military purposes, Ashton may be steering the negotiations toward a deal that will be represented as defusing the crisis while not removing the threat of an Iranian bomb. Though the Europeans are championing the idea that the talks have value, the Iranians seem to be back to their old tricks in convincing their negotiating partners of their interest in a solution while sticking to a playbook whose only objective is to remove the threat of an oil embargo in exchange for giving up nothing. This may be Obama’s idea of a ticking clock, but with Ashton dragging out the process, there is, as even Rozen concluded, little likelihood that real progress is in the offing.

As Rozen makes clear, the Iranians seem all too comfortable with Ashton as their chief interlocutor. Though Ashton, a failed leftist British politician who has become the EU’s foreign policy chief, is praised for her skill in orchestrating the talks, her coziness with the Iranians has to worry President Obama. According to Rozen, she spent a three-hour dinner with the top Iranian negotiator discussing “political party funding in the U.S.,” a clear illusion to the influence of the pro-Israel community and President Obama’s need to sound tough about the nuclear question. This nugget raises the inescapable conclusion that Ashton’s position may actually be closer to the Iranians than it is to that of Washington.

Rozen’s reporting on the way the Europeans and others who are committed to the myth of what the president calls a “diplomatic window” with Iran were played by the Iranians also gives us a good idea of how effective Tehran’s representatives were in Istanbul. Using the same tactics employed in the previous attempts to talk them out of their nuclear program, the Iranians raised the hopes of the Euros for a while and then dashed them. By the time they were finished, Ashton and her crew actually thought they had come out ahead because the Iranians had agreed to another meeting, albeit one that would not be held until the end of May. The article also makes it clear the long delay before the next round that will be held, at Iran’s behest, in Baghdad, is due as much to Ashton as anyone else.

Even those cheering the diplomatic process admit the talks would have had more credibility if there had been a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran. But it never happened, though Rozen claims Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman made a good impression on everyone in Istanbul by taking an appropriately “tough” attitude with the Iranians. But the most important thing to understand about Sherman is that she was the Clinton administration’s North Korea Policy Coordinator. Which means she is among those responsible for a feckless policy of appeasement of the North Koreans that ultimately led to their achieving nuclear capability. For an administration that has vowed never to allow Iran to go nuclear to have one of the people who can be blamed for the failure to stop North Korea as our point person in the talks is yet another reason to call into question Obama’s credibility on this issue.

The happy talk emanating from Istanbul and the ease with which the Iranians stonewalled the P5+1 negotiators creates a stark contrast with President Obama’s vow to keep the pressure on Iran. The failure to obtain anything of substance from this meeting as well as the long delay until the next conclave give no reason to hope for better results in Baghdad in May and should be counted as just the latest diplomatic triumph for the Iranians. If Obama is serious about bringing the Iranians to heel — an assumption open to debate — he must attempt to take back control of the process from Ashton. If not, he may find that she not only will not defuse this crisis but also may create another issue for the Republicans to use against him this fall.


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