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This Low-Profile British Diplomat Helped Salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal

This Low-Profile British Diplomat Helped Salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal

GENEVA – The historic nuclear pact with Iran that was signed shortly before dawn Sunday was a personal and professional triumph for Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested enormous amounts of his political capital in the on-again, off-again talks with Tehran. But the bigger winner may be a low-profile British diplomat who shuns the press and had long been derided as a lightweight.

Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat, spent the past few days locked in round-the-clock negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. When the two sides finally agreed to a deal, it was Ashton and Zarif who met at Geneva’s Palais des Nations to formally sign the pact. Ashton, who has long been wary of the media, insisted that the event be closed to all but a handful of reporters and took no questions.

That was very much in character for Ashton, an unassuming former member of the British House of Lords who got her job four years ago because of a byzantine political dispute involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Here in Geneva, though, she’s been on center stage. The foreign ministers of the so-called P5+1 countries — the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, France and Britain — held brief meetings with Zarif this weekend, but Ashton led the talks and was Zarif’s primary counterpart. Most of the time, she was the only one in the room with him as the deal slowly came together.

"Ashton has pleasantly surprised," said Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior official on the National Security Council. "She has turned out to be a reasonably effective behind-the-scenes negotiator."

The success of her efforts won’t be known until Kerry and the other foreign ministers formally sign an interim agreement with Zarif that would temporarily halt, or slow, Iran’s nuclear program while giving Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets. Western diplomats cautioned that the deal could still fall through — as they did two weeks ago — but it’s highly doubtful that Kerry would be traveling to Geneva if an agreement wasn’t extremely close to being finalized.

The talks in Geneva this week have veered from optimism Wednesday that an agreement was close to a grim sense Thursday that the two sides were drifting further and further away from a deal. The main sticking points were disagreements over whether Iran had the "right" to enrich uranium and whether it would have to stop, rather than simply slow, the construction of its Arak plutonium reactor. The Iranian media, much of which functions as a semi-official mouthpieces for the Iranian government, reported throughout the day that the two sides had resolved both issues.

Leading successful nuclear talks with the Iranians would mark a remarkable turnaround for Ashton, whose initial appointment had been greeted with skepticism, and in some cases derision, because she had specialized in domestic issues during her time in the British House of Lords and had no real experience in foreign policy. Ashton was also a complete unknown — which was, paradoxically, one of the primary reasons she got the job.

In the fall of 2009, EU leaders met to choose to fill a pair of newly-created posts: president of the European Council and the rather impressive-sounding post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wanted to appoint his predecessor, Tony Blair, to the presidency, but the rest of the EU powers revolted because they didn’t want someone with Blair’s high public profile.

Brown eventually agreed to a compromise that gave the presidency to a former Belgian prime minister while reserving the foreign policy job for a British official. The EU didn’t want a star like Blair. Ashton, who had held a series of obscure posts, was a perfect fit.

At a press conference announcing her announcement, Brown sang her praises but mispronounced her name as "Cathy Ashdown" before getting it right. Time headlined a story about the two picks as the "bland leading the bland."

Ashton herself seemed to have been caught off-guard. "It is perhaps a measure of my slight surprise that I do not have a speech written," she said at the time.

Ashton had some early stumbles, including failing to visit Haiti in the immediate aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake and giving a speech in 2012 that infuriated the Israeli government by appearing to equate a deadly shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse with the suffering of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. Ashton insisted that her comments had been taken out of context, but Ehud Barak, Israel’s then-defense minister, said her comments were "outrageous and had absolutely no grounding in reality."

In recent years, though, Ashton has seemed to settle into her job. In April, she brokered a deal that led Serbia to relinquish its de facto control over northern Kosovo, easing tensions between the two longtime adversaries. More recently, she traveled to Cairo and became the first Western diplomat to visit deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, said "its fair to say that her many successes have shown that the early skepticism was completely misplaced."

When her appointment was announced in 2009, Ashton told her critics that she would eventually win them over.

"Am I an ego on legs? I am not," she said then. "Judge me on what I do, and I think you will be proud of me."

Early in her tenure, that judgment would likely have been fairly harsh. With the nuclear deal in place, though, Ashton seems likely to get the last laugh.