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    Middle East
     Mar 20, '14

EU sees hope in Ashton's Iran visit
By Edward Wastnidge

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

It has been well reported that EU foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton's recent visit to Iran has provoked a mixed response among various factions of the Iranian political scene and media.

Despite this, the tone of British reporting has been cautiously optimistic, coming on the back of the recent interim nuclear agreement and election of relatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani.

It should be noted though that while the visit of the EU's top

diplomat was the first of its kind since the post was expanded prior to Ashton's appointment to it in 2009, Iran has more or less retained diplomatic relations with all EU states on a bilateral basis, despite the long-standing US-Iran diplomatic impasse and the nuclear negotiations.

There was a brief pause following the break-in of hardline Iranian protesters at the British embassy in Tehran in 2011, and temporary Dutch and Danish withdrawals following their own bilateral spats, but the ambassadors all returned to Tehran soon afterwards.

UK-Iran relations, however have remained on hold up until the recent exchange of charge d' affaires by London and Tehran in November. What we are witnessing is not a new dawn then, but rather a cautious step forward.

Ashton's visit was partly a culmination of diplomatic maneuverings that have taken place within the context of the nuclear talks, and also a nod to the future potential of this relationship. What it shows is the power of tactful diplomacy, and how words and the smallest of actions are hugely influential when it comes to any kind of diplomatic relationship.

Arguably, Iran and the EU have come from a darker place in their relations before now. For example, in 1997 senior Iranian figures were implicated by German courts in the killing of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, which led to a full withdrawal of all EU ambassadors.

They returned after six months, and tellingly this return came after the surprise election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Khatami's presidency was characterized by his efforts at promoting detente and greater dialogue with the West on a number of issues.

While his efforts were ultimately constrained due to a resurgent conservative front in Iranian politics, the early diplomatic success has echoes in today's rapprochement.

Ashton's trip to Tehran was preceded by a European Parliament delegation visit in December, and former-UK foreign minister Jack Straw led a group of British MPs on a visit to Tehran in January. Straw was making use of the working relationship he had built with Rouhani during the latter's former incarnation as chief negotiator in the initial talks over Iran's nuclear program.

Ashton's trip certainly paid dividends in terms of further re-enforcing the good relationship she has with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and a cautious optimism has prevailed despite conservative elements within the Iranian government and press complaining about Ashton's meeting with Iranian women's activists while on her visit.

The positivity as expressed by Zarif and Rouhani should not come as a surprise. Both have diplomatic experience which comes across in their pronouncements and overall handling of the current negotiations - Zarif is a seasoned diplomat having served as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. They represent a more savvy, intellectual element of Iranian politics which has a broader outlook on the Islamic Republic's relations with the West. The cautious optimism is tempered by the almost impulsive skepticism that comes from conservative elements within the Iranian political system.

However, no president, or foreign minister, has thus far been given such leeway on Iran's sensitive nuclear issue, which is still at the forefront of discussions between Iran and the West more broadly. With that comes a tacit recognition from the ultimate holder of power in the Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, that time and space needs to be given to allow the diplomatic maneuverings to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.

Naturally, statements will be made that dampen the optimism, but this is par for the course in any rapprochement. Just as belligerence breeds contempt, composure and careful mediation lead to amity, and the EU is making use of its long-standing diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic to ensure that it is well-placed when and if the sanctions regime is finally lifted.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Dr Edward Wastnidge is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics and International Studies at the Open University, UK. His main area of research concerns the politics and international relations of the Middle East and Central Asia, with a particular focus on contemporary Iranian politics and foreign policy.

(Copyright 2014 Dr Edward Wastnidge)

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