Reading between lines of Ashton’s Iran statement

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European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told her Iranian counterpart Thursday that Iran needs to agree soon on a plan to stop its 20% enrichment, or there wasn’t much prospect of the current diplomatic track continuing as such indefinitely.

That, anyway, seemed to be the message between the lines of a stark four-line statement she made after a phone call Thursday with Dr. Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Her statement, (and my annotations) below:

“Since these talks resumed in April, I …have explored diplomatic ways to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme,” Ashton said in the statement. (Note the use of the past tense: “have explored diplomatic ways” – and the sense the exploring may not continue indefinitely.)

“I impressed the need for Iran now to address the issues we have raised in order to build confidence,” Ashton said. (Emphasis on “now”–or at  least soonish–also that Iran should be the one to move.)

“I proposed, and Dr Jalili agreed, that we talk again after further reflection at the end of the month.” (“Further reflection” being code for – think about it for a few weeks and get back to me.)

Yes, the few week delay may also, conveniently enough, give diplomats a few days for August vacation. But the underlying message seems pretty stark: the diplomatic track may be winding down, or at least going into hiatus, without a greater sign of seriousness from Iran. Even as Iran–as many other observers–believes there’s little prospect of closing a deal before the US presidential elections in November. The United States, meantime, is unlikely to agree to another P5+1 political directors meeting with Iran, unless there’s serious hope for progress, sources told Al-Monitor.

“There’s an argument that there’s little to be gained from one,” said Allen Keiswetter, a former US diplomat who co-authored a new Middle East Institute report on Iran. From Washington’s perspective, “Sanctions need to hurt more, and they have not come fully into effect yet. ‘Let more of the medicine take effect and we’ll talk later,’ is one guess to what the rational is.”

Or, as a European diplomat put it last week, “We are doubling down on the dual track”– a reference to ramping up sanctions and pressure while keeping the diplomatic channel open at least.

(Photo of European Union High Rep Catherine Ashton, center, with her deputy Helga Schmid, left, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at G8 summit, May 2012, by EEAS.)