The woman behind the Iran nuclear deal says the US is undermining its own diplomatic credibilityby Catherine Ashton / November 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Long before Donald Trump appeared on the scene, Iranian leaders were concerned that the United States might lack a lasting commitment to a nuclear agreement. Almost every Republican presidential hopeful promised to rip up any deal. The Iranians were listening to the growing rhetoric coming out of the United States, as the election grew closer.
In my bilateral meetings with Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his predecessor, we talked occasionally about what might happen if Americans elected an anti-agreement president. The subject would also come up when John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and I met the Iranian team.
Our answer to their concerns was twofold. First, a good deal that delivered what was asked of it, properly monitored and verified by the International Atomic Energy Authority, a highly respected organisation, would speak for itself. There would be no reason to dismantle the agreement. Many other issues with Iran would demand the attention of the US and others, but not this one.
Second, the agreement was not bilateral. There were five other nations, operating as part of a team, given a mandate by the UN Security Council, with the European Union’s High Representative (the post I held from 2009 to 2014) leading the team. Negotiations had begun over ten years before, starting with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK, joined by the EU. Iran’s first negotiator was Hassan Rouhani, later to be President of Iran. The US, China and Russia joined the team later, on behalf of the Security Council.
We frequently found that the engagement of each of the six nations was critical. US commitment was necessary, but not sufficient. John Kerry was a brilliant negotiator; but the agreement didn’t belong to the US alone. In every coordination meeting I chaired, we discussed our negotiating mandate, referring back to capitals as necessary. At times the US pushed hard to get other countries to accept elements of the agreement that mattered more to them than others. We worked our way through difficult discussions to maintain a common position.
This was not easy, for our talks took place at a time when the six countries seeking unity on Iran were deeply divided on other issues. For example, as our negotiations reached their climax, the US and the EU were in dispute with Russia over Ukraine; yet we managed to prevent that dispute spilling over into the work we were doing. We made sure that the Iranians knew they couldn’t divide us—but also that they could rely on us to stick to what we proposed. When we achieved the interim deal in November 2013, which laid the foundations for the final deal in 2015, its immediate future looked bright.
Indeed, the model of major world powers ring-fencing the issues on which they could work together, even as they had deep differences elsewhere, seemed a good model for addressing other problems.
“Any nation will now think twice before doing a deal with the US”
As the US’s 2016 election approached, most observers assumed that pragmatic reality would set in a few minutes after a new president was sworn in, even a Republican one. A deal that was working and delivering wouldn’t so easily be thrown away.
Then came President Trump. Despite the clear evidence of the IAEA inspectors that Iran is sticking to its side of the deal, he is determined to change the agreement—threatening to pull out of it if he doesn’t get his way. This raises distinct problems for diplomacy in general and US diplomacy in particular.
All forms of collaboration have just become harder. Any nation or non-state actor will now think twice before doing a deal with the US. For example, Europe and the US have worked together closely and continue to do so on issues from Yemen to Libya. China’s role in bringing North Korea to a more constructive position is something the US has been pushing for. (During the Iran negotiations, North Korean diplomats made visits to Brussels to find out more about how it was being done. They weren’t the only ones.) A solution to Ukraine will rely on Russia being prepared to reach some form of agreement.
These are all tricky issues, which will require some compromise if they are to be solved by diplomacy. All sides need to be sure that tomorrow’s benefits will outweigh today’s concessions. Without confidence in the long-term viability of a deal, diplomacy stands little chance.
The final concern is about Iran itself. There were many voices inside the country, wanting President Rouhani to take a much harder line. They said the US could never be trusted. They thought that Iran would dismantle its facilities and then find that they had been betrayed. President Trump has reinforced their views.
Although the Iran deal is not yet undone, there is an immediate chilling effect on the most vital part of the deal from Iran’s point of view. Its driving motivation for making and sticking to the deal, I would argue, was to strengthen their economy. Removing the sanctions allowed Iran to get hold of its assets and for trade and investment to develop. Instead, many companies who might be considering investment, or wanting to trade with Iran, are now holding back. This is bad news for the forces of moderation in Tehran.
It is also bad news for the US. It risks cutting off any chance of talking with Iran about other issues about which it has real concerns. Let us hope Congress helps President Trump to think again.
Catherine Ashton was the EU’s High representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy