Baroness Ashton's recent visit to Egypt’s ousted president Morsi is politically significant in its own right given that no other high-ranking Western diplomat has been granted access to Mr Morsi. The visit also revealed something about Baroness Ashton's personal diplomatic skills and boosted the EU's image as a flexible global mediator. This will be very helpful if Lady Ashton builds contacts with another president in the Middle East, Mr Rouhani of Iran.
When visiting Mr Morsi in Egypt, Europe’s top diplomat appeared as a sympathetic emissary who was genuinely concerned about the situation. She also seemed to be prepared to work hard without the usual preaching that often takes centre stage in relations between the West and the Middle East. As some observers noted, this low-key approach might have helped the EU’s foreign policy chief to get to Mr Morsi’s secret location. But it also set the EU apart from other Western powers and made the EU appear as a more effective and flexible diplomatic actor.
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As for the EU’s relations with Iran, these features of European diplomacy will become particularly helpful with regard to the change of the Iranian president. Rouhani's victory is an opportunity for the EU to rethink its diplomatic approach towards Iran. There have been cautious expectations of a more cooperative tone in Iran's relations with the West and a possible resolution of the nuclear problem. Given Mr Rouhani's flexible negotiation style, as was evident in his former role as a broker for Iran's nuclear programme in the early 2000s, he could be a good match for Baroness Ashton to develop a more personal rapport that helps to build mutual trust.
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The EU should engage in a standing and frank dialogue with Iran
As a moderator for the P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear programme - including the US, the UK, Russia, France, China, and Germany - the EU HR has been in direct contact with the Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili and has thus avoided meeting directly with Iran’s president Ahmadinejad. This position has been a logical one given Mr Ahmadinejad’s conflictual and problematic policy posture. However, building direct contacts with Iran’s new president may be beneficial not only to facilitate progress on nuclear talks but also to improve the general quality of EU-Iran relations.
It is difficult to predict whether Rouhani's presidency will be different, both in tone and substance, from his predecessor's. In any case, it is likely that Rouhani will pursue two important goals. He will try to improve Iran's dire economic situation. He will also try to break Iran's isolation in world politics. Both of these goals will impact the domestic political situation in the country and its relationship with the EU.
The EU should signal to Iran’s new president that it is open to a cautious political dialogue that goes beyond the nuclear negotiations and includes the important issues of human rights and regional stability. In this regard, the EU could break away from the ineffective practice of sending sermons from Brussels each time a death penalty is applied or the freedom of the media is violated in Iran. Instead of preaching from a distance, the EU should engage in a standing and frank dialogue with Iran.
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