VIENNA World powers expect European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to lead nuclear negotiations with Iran during a four-month extension of the talks, even though she leaves her EU job in late October, a senior Western diplomat said on Saturday.
The diplomat spoke hours after Iran and the six powers agreed to continue talking, after failing to meet a self-imposed July 20 deadline to reach an agreement on curbing the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for ending sanctions.
Ashton's mandate as the EU's top foreign policy official expires at the end of October, before the new Nov. 24 target date for a long-term settlement to end the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
But, the senior diplomat said, "the clear understanding among the countries is that she will complete the job".
Diplomats say they hope an agreement can be reached before the November deadline.
Ashton, a British baroness who has held the EU post for the last five years, has been the prime coordinator of negotiations with the Islamic Republic since 2010.
The role requires her to work with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to present a clear and united position, while trying to build trust with the Iranians to keep the sensitive talks trundling along.
Ultimately, it is Iran and Washington who will determine if a deal is done. But Ashton's shepherding of the process has won her accolades and helped silence some of her many detractors.
Ashton, 58, is a former campaigner against nuclear weapons, social worker and hospital administrator who was made a baroness for life by Britain's Labour party in 1999.
She had no foreign policy experience when she was unexpectedly named to her post in December 2009.
Despite those shortcomings and a difficult time early in her tenure as she battled to establish herself, she is said to have forged a close personal relationship with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, her counterpart in the talks.
Zarif occasionally addresses her as Cathy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised her work when he earlier this week joined the talks in Vienna, saying the stewardship of Ashton and her team of the negotiations had been "indefatigable and superb".
(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Sophie Hares)