Artful diplomacy with Syria and Iran

Kofi Annan and Catherine Ashton each relied on delicate diplomacy to bring some fragile hope to two big security issues – Iran's nuclear program and the civil war in Syria.

Hamid Foroutan/ISNA/AP Photo
International envoy Kofi Annan, left, meets with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad April 12. Annan appealed to Syria's key ally Iran to support his plan to end the violence wracking the Arab country.

As Churchill once said, to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war. That could well describe what two seasoned diplomats have pulled off in two of the world’s big security issues – civil war in Syria and Israel’s threat to attack Iran.

In the Syrian conflict, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan convinced enough big powers as well as strongman Bashar al-Assad to accept a cease-fire plan last week. UN observers are now entering the country in a long-shot attempt to stop a conflict that has seen more than 9,000 killed over the past year.

An equally herculean task was achieved by Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief. Under the dark cloud of an Israeli threat to bomb Iran, she was able to arrange 10 hours of talks last Saturday between Iran and six other nations – the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China. The negotiations in Istanbul, Turkey, were “constructive” and are set to resume next month in Baghdad, Iraq. Iran agreed to draft a proposal for changes to its nuclear program.

Both peace initiatives remain very fragile. Lady Ashton and Mr. Annan surely know that their artful diplomacy was possible largely because the threat of full-scale war in Syria and between Iran and Israel had begun to worry many countries. Also, the world has tightened economic sanctions on both Iran and Syria, perhaps forcing them to the negotiating table.

The two diplomats deserve praise for their subtle, calm, and patient work to create a chance for peace.

Ashton, a former government minister in Britain, said the talks with Iran were based on “the principle of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity.” That latter point is crucial to an Iran sensitive to being respected.

She fended off last-minute demands by Tehran while also mediating between the big powers that differ over their approaches to Iran. It helped that she had a three-hour dinner Friday with Saeed Jalili, chief Iranian negotiator.

For Annan’s work with Syria, the diplomatic superstar had to balance the interests of the West with those of Iran, China, and Russia. His long UN experience – although checkered – had already won him a Nobel Peace Prize. In 2008, he ably negotiated a resolution to a violent, political conflict in Kenya. In February, he was appointed as the interlocutor to Syria for both the UN and the Arab League.

Within weeks, he came up with a six-point peace plan acceptable to all sides. As the professional peacemaker has said before, “All I have is the power of moral persuasion.”

Both Annan and Ashton could be accused of merely helping Syria and Iran buy time. Nuclear enrichment continues apace in Iran while Mr. Assad’s forces still battle with protesters and rebels.

Yet even if these peace efforts fail, they will at least help expose any perfidy by Iran and Syria for all the world to see. It probably won’t take long to find out if that is the case. For now though, the ball-ball is with the jaw-jaw.

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