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Profiles | These Three Women: Ashton, Schmid, Sherman and the Nuclear Talks

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

18 Jun 2012 00:02Comments

The trio that holds the key to negotiations with Iran.

ashtoniranwardrobe.jpg [ comment ] The latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- begins on Monday in Moscow. These will be the third round of talks in a series that began on April 14 in Istanbul and continued May 23-24 in Baghdad. The Iranian delegation is led by Saeed Jalili, secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Jalili's chief aide is Ali Bagheri, his deputy for international affairs at the SNSC. Both men are graduates of Tehran's Imam Sadegh University, which has produced many hardline government officials and military officers. The Western powers and China are all represented by delegation led by their deputy foreign ministers.

The most important players for the P5+1 side are three women -- an irony, given that the Islamic Republic has systematically discriminated against women ever since its inception in 1979. The P5+1's chief negotiator is the British diplomat Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and, under the Treaty of Lisbon, vice-president of the European Commission. In the view of many, the true negotiations are between Iran and the United States, whose delegation is led by Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. The other important female player is German diplomat Helga Maria Schmid, deputy secretary-general for the external action services of the European Union. The trio and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are a powerful force to reckon with in the nuclear negotiations.

It has not been lost on the Iranians that in their negotiations with P5+1 they are dealing with three powerful women. There is much curiosity about the trio, from their approaches to diplomacy to their manner of dress. Much was made about the clothes that Ashton wore in Istanbul over 17 months ago during a previous series of talks and the fact that images of her had to be Photoshopped to be printable in sanctioned Iranian media outlets. Her outfits were thus closely scrutinized during the recent negotiations. (Photo: parody of Ashton's increasingly conservative wardrobe at nuclear talks, widely distributed by email among Iranians.)

Who are these three women that are at the center of the most important global political issue of the moment, the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program?

Catherine Ashton

The Right Honorable, the Baroness Ashton of Upholland -- her official title in the British tradition -- was born in Upholland, Lancashire, on March 20, 1956. The first woman in her family to pursue higher education, she received her B.Sc. degree in sociology in 1977 from London's Bedford College (now part of Royal Holloway, University of London). From 1977 to 1983, Ashton worked for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), rising to be its national treasurer and vice-chair. From 1983 to 1989, she was director of business in the community, working with businesses to tackle inequality; in that capacity, she established the Employers' Forum on Disability, Opportunity Now, and the Windsor Fellowship. She also chaired the Health Authority in Hertfordshire from 1998 to 2001, and became a vice president of the National Council for One Parent Families.

Former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair made Ashton a Labor life peer as Baroness Ashton of Upholland in 1999. In June 2001, she was appointed parliamentary undersecretary of state in the Department for Education and Skills; in 2002 she was made minister for Sure Start in the same department, and in September 2004 she became parliamentary undersecretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Ashton was sworn of the Privy Council in 2006, and became parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice in May 2007. After Gordon Brown replaced Blair as prime minister, he appointed Ashton in June 2007 to the cabinet as leader of the House of Lords and lord president of the Council.

Brown actively pushed for Blair to become president of the European Council, but did not succeed. He relented on the condition that the position of European Union high representative go to a British citizen. Thus, on November 19, 2009, Ashton was appointed the E.U.'s first high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, after the appointment was approved by a summit of 27 European Union leaders in Brussels. Effectively the E.U.'s foreign minister, she has many strong supporters and detractors. For example, she faced questions in the European Parliament over her role as national treasurer in the CND in the 1980s, as some of the group's opponents had claimed that the organization had financial links to the Soviet Union. She was criticized as well for remarks she made this March 19, in which she compared the shooting of Jewish children in southern France with the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza.

After the negotiations failed in Istanbul early last year, Ashton rejected Iran's request for further negotiations on the ground that it "contained nothing new." Iranian mass media outlets, under hardline control, directed ferocious rhetoric at her. Apparently, she has developed better relations with Jalili, and there is now much curiosity in the Iranian media about her (see, for example, here, here, and here).

Two weeks ago, Jalili accused Schmid of not responding to his letters. He was insisting that the experts of both sides must meet before Moscow to set the agenda. Iran was worried that the P5+1 would be interested in discussing only the proposal that it presented to Iran in Baghdad, whereby Iran must stop immediately enriching uranium at 19.75 percent, in return for which the United States and its allies would make minor concessions. All the hardline websites and newspapers declared that the P5+1 had reneged on its agreement with Iran and they fiercely attacked both Ashton and Schmid. Ashton and Jalili subsequently spoke by phone, and apparently smoothed things out. The conversation went so well that Jalili dropped Iran's call for another preliminary meeting to prepare for the Moscow session. "They [the Iranians] backed down," a European diplomat who is involved in the talks reported. "They had been setting up a failure in Moscow and preparing to blame us for it," he said, claiming that the renewed agreement to engage, after several weeks of foot-dragging, was "a small diplomatic victory" for Ashton.

But in general, the Iranian hardliners present a very negative image of Ashton. One, for example, claimed that the "arrogant and haughty" Ashton cannot be effective in negotiating with Jalili, a "young Hezbollahi." They have compared Ashton unfavorably with her predecessor, Javier Solana, and declared that she is unqualified for the job. Fars, the news agency that is owned by a foundation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, questioned whether Ashton could be a "good" negotiator with Iran. Right before the Istanbul meeting in April, some hardline media in Iran even reported, wishfully, that Ashton might be removed from the P5+1 delegation. Perhaps much of this dislike is due to the fact that Ashton is from Great Britain, which has been at the forefront of imposing sanctions on Iran.

Helga Maria Schmid

p019489001301-406745_470_318_sha.jpgSchmid was born on December 8, 1960. She received advanced degrees in English, Romance languages, literature, history, and politics from Munich University and the Sorbonne in Paris. She has worked in various positions within the German government since 1988, including in the Diplomatic Academy, international and European law, economics, international relations (1988-90). She was assistant private secretary to the minister for European Affairs (1990-91), and press and public affairs officer for the German embassy in Washington (1991-94). She was also a political adviser to Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel (1994-98) and chief of staff for his successor, Joschka Fischer (1998-2000). From 2003 to 2005, Schmid was the head of the political staff of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, and from 2006 to 2010 director of the Policy Planning and Early Warning Unit in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union in Brussels. She is currently deputy secretary-general of the E.U.'s External Action Service and a senior advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merker.

Schmid has been deeply involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, ever since former president Mohammad Khatami formally announced to the world the existence of Iran's uranium enrichment program and facilities in February 2003. In October 2003, when Khatami signed the Sa'dabad Agreement (named after the Iranian presidential palace) with Britain, France, and Germany, committing Iran to voluntarily execute the provisions of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Schmid accompanied Fischer to Tehran. She has said that the international community cannot easily tolerate possible failure of the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, just as her former boss Fischer said that failure would be tragic.

Schmid has been in regular contact with Bagheri, and has been described as a formidable diplomat and highly skilled and experienced. Both Bagheri and Schmid have played crucial roles behind the scenes. Except for the recent exchange between Schmid and Bagheri that provoked attacks on her by the hardline media, the Iranian mass media has been presenting a relatively positive image of Schmid. It has repeatedly said that the key to success in the Moscow negotiations are in the hands of Bagheri and Schmid. She has even been referred to as the "power in the shadow."

Bagheri has close links to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is the son of an important cleric -- Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher (Mehdi) Bagheri Kani, a member of the Assembly of Experts -- and the nephew of the Assembly's chairman -- Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani. His brother is married to Khamenei's daughter Hoda. Both he and Jalili, who now refers to himself as the "personal representative of the Supreme Leader," thus speak with authority. It was Bagheri who met with Schmid in undisclosed locations several times both before the Istanbul and Baghdad negotiations, in order to set the agenda for the meetings. In Iran's nuclear negotiation team Bagheri represents the "good cop," with Schmid playing a similar role for P5+1. He is urbane and polite, and has demonstrated surprising flexibility, so much so that at one point in Baghdad Jalili reportedly gave Bagheri a dressing down in front of the foreign diplomats, just to demonstrate his authority (or perhaps indicate who the "bad cop" is).

Wendy Sherman

5732C841-0E60-4B24-92A3-190A8D0D5095ArtVPF.jpgWendy Ruth Sherman was born in 1949. After attending Smith College from 1967 to 1969, she received her B.A. cum laude from Boston University in 1971. She also received a M.A. Phi Kappa Phi in social work from the University of Maryland in 1976. A Democrat, she worked for Maryland Congresswoman (now senator) Barbara Mikulski, and then the Democratic National Committee. After President Bill Clinton appointed Warren Christopher secretary of state, Sherman served from 1993 to 1996 as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, leading the efforts to obtain the funding for Russia and the newly independent states after the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, as well as support for the Dayton accords that ended the three-and-a-half-year-long war in Bosnia. She later worked as State Department counselor under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and as special adviser to President Clinton on North Korea, playing an important role in the agreement that the Clinton administration reached with North Korea in 2000 regarding its nuclear weapons program, traveling with Albright to Pyongyang. (President George W. Bush later reneged on the agreement.)

Sherman has served on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and was appointed in 2008 by the congressional leadership to serve on the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Strategy Group, and served on the Board of Advisors for the Center for a New American Security and the Truman National Security Project. Last September, Sherman was appointed undersecretary of state for political affairs, the number three position in the State Department. Sherman has sometimes been called a "door opener" for leading successful negotiations.

There is also much curiosity about Sherman in the Iranian mass media, particularly since it was her who officially opened the U.S. virtual embassy for Iran last December in the form of a website, saying, "We want to make direct contacts with the Iranian people. We want to let the Iranian people, and in particular the Iranian youth know that the United States respects deeply the Iranian people and their civilization." (The Islamic Republic immediately blocked the website.) Thus, there have been numerous profiles of her in the Iranian mass media; see, for example, this report from Mashregh News, a website closely linked with the security and intelligence forces, and this collection of photos of Sherman in her official duties. Her trips to the "occupied territories" -- Israel -- are regularly covered and criticized. Before the Baghdad meeting, some of the more moderate Iranian websites wrote relatively positively about Sherman and what she may propose in Baghdad.

In Baghdad Sherman asked to meet with Jalili face-to-face, but her request was turned down. However, Jalili did have a rare "chat" with Sherman. The brief encounter came as the delegations were leaving one of the negotiations sessions. Iran's hardline mass media were silent about this, indicating that the chat did take place, although Iran's delegation apparently denied it.

Right after the Baghdad meetings Sherman traveled to Israel to brief its leaders on the negotiations. But in an apparent show of displeasure with the American diplomatic efforts, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both refused to meet with Sherman. Instead, she met with National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror. The Iranian hardliners said that Sherman wanted to report to her "masters."

Will the negotiations in Moscow succeed? After the Istanbul negotiations, there was euphoria over the apparent success of the first round. Right after the Baghdad negotiations, the outlook became a bit gloomier. From a few days after the Baghdad meeting until last Monday, the mood on both sides was clearly pessimistic. There is now some cautious optimism, after Jalili and Ashton spoke by phone. The outcome of the Moscow negotiations will depend on how flexible the two sides are. But there is no doubt that these three women will play critical roles.

"These Three Women" is the title of a popular work by Iranian author Masoud Behnoud that chronicles the lives of Ashraf Pahlavi, Maryam Firooz, and Iran Teymourtash.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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