The nuclear talks with Iran have been a rare case for the EU’s high representative for security policy and foreign affairs (HR) to play a prominent role on the international stage.
The HR has presided over contacts with the Iranians for years – since 2006 not only on behalf of the EU and the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) but also on behalf of the other members of the EU3+3 group: the United States, Russia and China.
At the moment, the talks are still chaired by Catherine Ashton, despite the fact that she stepped down as HR at the end of October.
Ashton’s mandate was extended because it made little sense to bring in someone new so soon before the November 24 deadline for a final deal.
But now that that deadline has been postponed to June 2015, the time has come for the EU to hand over the Iran dossier to the new HR, Mogherini.
There are rumours that the move is indeed being debated at the EU headquarters. The debate is pointless.
EU leaders should immediately announce that the handover will take place as soon as it is technically feasible. Otherwise, they would deal an unnecessary blow to the credibility of the EU as a foreign and security policy actor.
No question, personalities matter in international negotiations.
There may certainly be cases in which the result of delicate diplomatic talks heavily depends on the skills and creativity, as well as the authority, of the specific negotiators.
In those cases, having the same person overseeing and managing the whole process might be the wisest choice. But the Iran case is not one of them.
Ashton has handled the EU3+3-Iran talks well. The negotiation has given her the chance to gain international credibility and overcome the initial scepticism that greeted her appointment as HR in 2009.
The fact remains, however, that it was not her personal skills that won her the position as the EU3+3 interlocutor of the Iranians.
In fact, she was an unknown quantity with little to no experience in foreign policy when she stepped in. Rather it was her institutional position as EU foreign policy supremo.
She inherited the post in the nuclear talks from her predecessor, Javier Solana, who had arguably shown more initiative and resolve.
It was he, after all, who managed to win the trust of the George W. Bush-era US administration (particularly of the then-secretary of state Condolezza Rice) and gain US agreement that the HR would be representing not only the EU but the whole EU3+3 group.
Solana met several times with the Iranians and put forward some original ideas in order to convince them to get to the negotiating table (such as the “freeze for freeze” proposal, according to which Iran would suspend sensitive nuclear activities and the EU3+3 would suspend work on further sanctions for as long as the talks go on).
When Solana’s term ended he duly passed on all his responsibilities to Ashton.
This decision was right and in keeping with the EU’s often stated ambition to sharpen its foreign and security policy credentials.
Handing over the Iran dossier to Ashton was an important signal that the EU would remain involved in the issue according to its own structures and decision-making procedures.
It was the institution that mattered, not the person. Why should it now be different?
Mogherini, the new HR, has certainly no less foreign policy experience than Ashton had when she took office in 2009.
If anything, she is better placed than Ashton was.
She was Italy’s foreign minister (albeit for only a few months); she chaired the Italian delegation to Nato’s parliamentary assembly; and she was long in the international affairs group of her party.
Granted, this is not an overly impressive foreign policy resume.
Nevertheless, EU leaders determined that it was enough to appoint her as HR.
Should they prevent her from managing one of the most important dossiers handled by the HR office, they would send the signal that they do not trust their own choices.
During the 12-year long dispute with Iran, foreign ministers and negotiators have come and gone on all sides: Iran, the US, the E3, and the EU itself.
But the talks continue because they are much more important than any one person.
There is no reason to expect that this has changed now.
This article was originally published in EUobserver »