Senior diplomats who participated in the intense negotiations that led to Sunday’s historic interim agreement over Iran’s nuclear program said much of the credit for reaching a deal belongs to Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy officials who chaired the talks.
Ashton, 57, a sociologist by training and the first person in her British working class family to go to college, cultivated a relationship with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, through a series of dinners before and during the talks, the diplomats said.
She also used her personality – one diplomat called her “light-hearted and good natured” – to defuse tensions at critical junctures, especially when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius became furious when he was presented with a draft text during an earlier round of negotiations that he felt had been pre-cooked by the United States and Iran.
None of the diplomats interviewed for this story agreed to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the discussions. All are likely to be participants in future talks to reach what is being called a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
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In the critical final day of the talks, Ashton chaired the meetings between Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and conducted a sort of shuttle diplomacy among the foreign ministers from Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia and China to resolve outstanding differences and get needed technical and political advice.
“The main business of the reaching the final deal was done in the session between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton," said one diplomat.
The U.S.-educated Zarif, a specialist on international sanctions and international law, pushed all the way to the finish line to extract maximum up-front sanctions relief and to ensure that the final agreement included language that would allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium during the six-month accord. Kerry, for his part, pressed Zarif for language that would limit Iranian work on the nuclear reactor at Arak that was of special concern because it would produce plutonium, an element that can be used to build nuclear weapons.
The final package showed that both sides ultimately held back, leaving substantial room for additional concessions on both sanctions and the nuclear program in the upcoming negotiations.
The interim package might well be open to interpretation also. Less than an hour after the deal was signed, Zarif and Kerry gave conflicting interpretations of what its language on enrichment meant.
"This first step does not say that Iran has a right to enrichment, no matter what interpretive comments are made,” Kerry said. “There is no right to enrich within the four corners of the NPT. And this document does not do that." Kerry was referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sets the rules for nations’ nuclear programs and of which Iran is a signatory.
"Rather, the scope and role of Iran’s enrichment, as is set forth in the language within this document, says that Iran’s peaceful nuclear program is subject to a negotiation and to mutual agreement. And it can only be by mutual agreement that enrichment might or might not be able to be decided on in the course of negotiations."
Zarif had a different view in his comments to reporters. "Uranium enrichment is recognized," he said. The agreement, he added, "has clear reference to Iran’s enrichment program."
Both positions are supported in the final four-page document. The preamble reflects Kerry’s observations, while the body of the accord refers to different aspects of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.