WASHINGTON -- European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Monday expressed tempered expectations about upcoming negotiations with Iran about its controversial nuclear program, declining to endorse the Middle Eastern country's wish for an international accord on the matter within a year.
Ashton, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, was quizzed by audience members about the Oct. 15-16 talks she is coordinating with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and representatives from six other nations in Geneva.
She noted how Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last week -- when the U.N. General Assembly met in New York -- that they want to secure an international framework in 12 months that assures the world of Tehran's peaceful nuclear intentions and reduces or removes economic sanctions on their country. The Iranian leaders -- who recently came to power and are viewed by the West as more moderate than their predecessors -- maintain their uranium-enrichment efforts are not aimed at building atomic weapons, as nations including nearby Israel fear.
Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, said Zarif and Rouhani are seeking to "rather quickly" reach an accord in a year.
"The issue, which we will of course deal with [with] them in detail, is what does that mean," she told the think-tank audience. "Because to dismantle things or to change things or to be sure about what's being done requires the technical work to happen. And that technical work takes time."
"So I think … part of being level-headed, clear-eyed [in these negotiations], is to say, 'OK, if this is real, let's make it real and let's make sure that everybody can be confident in what we're actually doing,'" she added. "And that means the people in Iran. It means the people in America. It means the people across the world, including those who are most worried and most skeptical about what's happening there."
Wilson Center President Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman, noted to Ashton how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed skepticism about Iran's nuclear intentions being peaceful when he met with President Obama at the White House earlier on Monday.
"There are those who are very skeptical, and I think skepticism is warranted, given the painful 34-year history," Harman, a strong supporter of Israel, said at the Wilson Center event.
Ashton replied: "Yes, by no means is the prime minister of Israel alone."
"There are plenty of those who have good reason to be concerned, either because of proximity, or because of things that have been said historically," the EU official said. "So they need to also feel part of this and feel part of being certain about what we are able to do. But if it can be done it will be done."
Netanyahu on Monday urged Obama to keep sanctions in place against Iran during the six-nation talks, calling for increasing those economic penalties if Iran further enhances its atomic operations during those negotiations. The two leaders met just three days after Obama's much-talked-about telephone conversation with Rouhani, which marked the first time top U.S. and Iranian leaders spoke since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The previous day Zarif met in New York with Kerry and other "P-5+1" nations' officials, which also was a significant event in the evolving U.S.-Iranian relationship.
Ashton said her talks with the current Iranian officials have not delved into whether they would accept some specific actions previously requested by the six other nations involved in the negotiations. Those actions -- proposed by the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany -- include significantly limiting Iran's level of uranium enrichment.
"But," Ashton said, "I think Minister Zarif knows very well from his previous role in negotiations that a negotiation is about the things we need them to do and the things that they want in return. So I'm sure that he's looked very carefully at all of the ideas, proposals and issues that are on the table. All I can tell you at this stage is that he certainly approaches [talks] with great energy and determination, which is a phrase I use."
Ashton, in a lighthearted tone, said Zarif is "not sure about me calling him energetic at all," and then added: "But it's a compliment, just in case he's listening. … I get a real sense from him that he seriously wants to sit down and work this out."
Ashton said the nations represented at the Geneva talks will send their "political directors," who for the United States is Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. The EU official said she did not expect U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers to attend.
"That's as it should be at this point," Ashton said, noting the political directors are "fully given the mandate from their countries."
"My role is, if you like, to negotiate directly with the chief negotiator opposite," she added, "and to be supportive in doing that by the strength of the six, who are of course experts in how this negotiation is being done."
She said this is a better way to negotiate than to try to "get seven ministers all trying to negotiate at the same time." That's because, she said, "you do quickly get into some of the technical details."
She did note that she told Zarif that "if there is a point when it's very obvious you need to bring the politicians in -- because there's a particular point in the debate and the discussion, or a decision needs to be made or they need to be confident in what we're doing -- we wouldn't hesitate to do that."
Ashton was cautious during her Wilson Center talk about discussing U.S. sanctions against Iran. An audience member asked her about legislation the U.S. House of Representatives passed in July -- which would expand the economic constraints on non-American companies doing business with Iran -- and questioned whether it would be wise to change the sanction regime during the six-nation talks with Iran.
The EU official quickly said she is "not in the business of telling Congress what to do," and added: "I would like to get to Geneva with the best-possible atmosphere to really have these negotiations. And that means in all sorts of ways we need to show willingness and good faith to sit down and talk, and expect the same in return."
She said during negotiations she finds it beneficial to "keep pressure on," in order to "bring people to the talks in order to try and make progress." Still, she added[,] she wants to "go to Geneva with the best possible atmosphere."
"I think in any thinking about that, those who are making the law here, or those in control of the negotiations from the U.S. end -- which of course is Secretary Kerry and his team -- will have to think about how to make sure that it's the best possible atmosphere," Ashton added.