- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2013

The European Union’s foreign policy chief warned Monday against rushing to ease economic sanctions on Iran following last week’s diplomatic breakthroughs between the Islamic republic’s new leadership and the West.

“We should be ready to move if they are ready to move, but not ready to move until they are ready, they have done it and they have proved it and we are confident in them,” Catherine Ashton said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Ms. Ashton was referring to international efforts to strike a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

In a White House meeting Monday with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for U.S. sanctions on Iran to be kept in place and even strengthened if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program.

The House in August passed legislation that, if approved by the Senate, would increase sanctions on Iran.

While not explicitly speaking against new sanctions, Ms. Ashton said it is essential to ensure the “best possible atmosphere” for the negotiations.

“The pressure is there for a reason. It’s to bring people to the talks,” she said. “Those who are making the law here, or those who are in control of the negotiations from the U.S. end — Secretary [of State John F.] Kerry and his team — will have to think about how to make sure it is the best possible atmosphere.”

Ms. Ashton acknowledged Mr. Netanyahu’s concerns over diplomacy with Iran and said he is by no means alone.

“There are plenty of others who have good reason to be concerned. … They need to also feel a part of this,” she said. “Part of being level-headed and clear-eyed is to say, ‘OK, if this is real, let’s make the deal and let’s make sure that everybody can be confident in what we are actually doing.’ That means the people of Iran, the people and America, the people across the world, including those who are most worried and most skeptical about what is happening.”

In a series of breakthroughs, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met and spoke with Western officials in New York last week.

Mrs. Ashton met Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif, and chaired a meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., Britain, Russia, China and France — and Germany with Iran.

Mr. Kerry, who participated in the so-called P5+1 meeting, also held a bilateral meeting with Mr. Zarif.

And Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Rouhani on the phone, the first top-level contact between the leaders of the U.S. and Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The thaw has raised hopes for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

“If we can find a diplomatic solution, we really have to do everything we can,” Ms. Ashton said.

Members of the P5+1 and Iran will meet again in Geneva on Oct. 15.

“We have to be clear-eyed,” said Ms. Ashton, who will lead the those negotiations.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have said they want a deal within four to 12 months, but technical work of dismantling parts of the nuclear program and verifying compliance will take time, said Ms. Ashton.

She expressed confidence that Mr. Zarif is serious about finding a solution.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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