The lofty purpose of the three-day visit is to “encourage and advance the new spirit of openness and dialogue between Iran and the international community, and to explore what could be done to enhance cooperation on regional issues,” according to a statement issued by the Elders ahead of their arrival in Tehran.
The visit comes a week after the implementation of an interim agreement to scale back Iran’s nuclear activities in return for limited relief from international economic sanctions on Tehran.
Despite that accord, and growing hope here that Iran is emerging from years of diplomatic isolation, progress is slow and setbacks appear likely.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earning high marks from many attendees for delivering the message that his country is seeking friendlier ties with most countries. In stark contrast, his combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often used such international forums to rail against the West.
Those positive signs were tempered by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s comments that the United States would still consider taking military action against Iran if it chooses not to honor the uranium-enrichment limits outlined in the deal.
“If they do that, then the military option that is available to the United States is ready and prepared to do what it would have to do,” Kerry said Saturday in Geneva.
Several Iranian officials responded angrily to those comments, exposing the fragile nature of the nuclear accord.
“These remarks are undiplomatic, and it seems that a group which is opposed to the Geneva agreement and has a hand in promoting violence in the region has an unconstructive bearing on U.S. statesmen,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Sunday, in an apparent reference to Israel.
Also at issue is Iran’s role in Syria.
Last week, the United Nations invited Iran to participate in the Geneva II conference intended to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing Syrian conflict. That invitation was later revoked under intense U.S. pressure on grounds that Iran refused to accept the terms agreed on at the first Geneva conference in 2012.
Annan, who formerly served as U.N. special envoy for Syria, has long maintained that Iran must be included in attempts to end the bloody conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces. Iran and Russia continue to be Assad’s most important allies, providing financial and material support to the Syrian government.
“All of us, including the Iranian hosts, are concerned about the tragic conditions in Syria,” Annan said.
The visiting Elders group also includes retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as two former presidents: Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico. The group has met with key Iranian figures, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Notably absent is Jimmy Carter, an Elders member who was president during the 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent seizure of U.S. hostages.