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The Elders Support a Diplomatic Opening to Iran


Kofi Annan and President Rouhani, Iran
Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general and now head of The Elders, a group of eminent world leaders, meeting with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Jan. 28, 2014.

The Elders, a group of distinguished former global leaders led by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, made an unusual three-day visit to Iran at the end of January to meet with numerous officials, including President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. It was the first trip to Iran by The Elders, who said at the end of the mission that they came away upbeat.

“We are very encouraged by the frankness of our conversations with our hosts,” Annan said in Teheran after the visit. “We are convinced that Iran can be a key factor for stability and opportunity in the region, thanks to its historical role and capacity to influence others.”

Annan was accompanied on the trip by additional members of the group, including Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland and the 2008 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for decades of work on the resolution of conflicts in Namibia, Kosovo, Indonesia and elsewhere.

In Iran, Ahtisaari welcomed the interim nuclear agreement between Iran, the United States and others, giving a nod to the value of diplomacy in what seem like intractable conflicts.

“This is an exciting development in the world today,” he said. “Efforts must be sustained so that a final agreement can be signed by all parties. If the world fails in this, it will not only be the Iranian people who suffer, the stability of the region will suffer as well.”

Two other members of The Elders accompanied Annan to Iran; Ernesto Zedillo, a former president of Mexico, and Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa. Zedillo said that Iran was ready to engage with the world and to “seize enormous opportunities and take advantage of the global economy.”

Archbishop Tutu, an honorary Elder who was personally invited and encouraged by Iran to take part in the visit, said that “We believe firmly that it is possible for all of God’s children to live harmoniously together.”

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In Iran, besides talks with the current president, the Elders had meetings with a former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani; Foreign Minister Javad Zarif; Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council General Ali Shamkhani; head of the Center for Strategic Research, Ali Akbar Velayat; and Seyyed Ali Khomeini, grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They also met members of the diplomatic community.

The Elders group now consists of (in addition to Ahtisaari, Annan and Zedillo) Ela Bhatt, a women’s development pioneer in India; Lakhdar Brahimi, currently leading negotiations on Syria for the UN and the Arab League; Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and director-general of the World Health Organization;  Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil; Jimmy Carter; Hina Jilani, a human-rights lawyer from Pakistan; Graça Machel, an expert on women’s and children’s rights from Mozambique; and Mary Robinson, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and currently the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region in Africa.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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