Among all the issues in the Iranian nuclear talks with six major powers, there’s one question that won’t go away.
It’s not whether a framework nuclear deal will be ready by end-March or whether any likely agreement will sell out key western or Iranian negotiating red lines. The question that’s been debated among the core group of reporters that have long followed the talks is: What has happened to Catherine Ashton?
Ms. Ashton, the European Union’s former foreign policy chief, had played an important role in the nuclear talks. She presided over the group of six countries negotiating with Iran and was, for four years, the direct contact point with Tehran in the timing, format and framework of diplomacy.
Ms. Ashton and her EU team played a key role in keeping negotiations going during the tense days of 2012 and early 2013 when it seemed Iran was headed inexorably toward nuclear break-out capacity and a possible military conflict.
She also played a notable role in the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement with Iran, keeping Washington in sync (more or less) with its international partners in the group of six – the U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany.
When Ms. Ashton’s Brussels role ended on Oct. 31, 2014, it was already agreed she would remain as chair of the six-power group until what was then the deadline for talks – Nov. 24. When diplomats missed that deadline and diplomacy was extended a second time, there was a struggle behind the scenes about Ms. Ashton’s role.
In theory, her position should have been taken over by the EU’s new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. But although Ms. Ashton had tried the patience of some of her six-power colleagues, many felt it wiser if she kept her liaison role as all sides pushed to meet a new target date of end-March 2015 to seal the political framework of a deal.
A typical Brussels compromise emerged as Ms. Ashton pressed to stay involved, according to people familiar with discussions. Ms. Mogherini would take formal responsibility for the EU in the talks but Ms. Ashton would continue her role as a special advisor on Iran. Ms. Mogherini will join talks only when all other foreign ministers from Iran and the six powers are involved – a relatively rare occurrence.
That seemed clear. Only one problem. Since the last day of the November talks in Vienna, Ms. Ashton has not been seen.
While many of the negotiation rounds since then have been at bilateral level – most frequently between the U.S. and Tehran – Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been present much of the time. In the past, when Mr. Zarif turned up, Ms. Ashton was there.
The EU has had someone on the ground. Helga Schmid, the EU’s political director who has been involved in the talks on-and-off for a decade, meets with her six-power colleagues, liaises with Iran and is usually invited to US-Iranian bilaterals.
U.S. and European officials say Ms. Ashton remains involved. A U.S. official said she remains in touch with Secretary of State John Kerry now and again on the negotiations. European officials say she has contacts with other players as well from back home in Britain.
Yet others acknowledge Ms. Ashton has pretty much faded from the scene. Two western officials involved in the talks said they had not heard a peep from Ms. Ashton since Nov. 24 by email, telephone or otherwise. Ms. Ashton declined a request to comment.
A third senior European diplomat summed the situation up. Ms. Ashton, the person said, was a potentially valuable “political resource” in the weeks after the Nov. 24 deadline passed and a new EU team got up and running. “It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to use that resource,” the person said.