Kofi Annan, in jab at US, travels to Tehran to say Iran can help on Syria

Diplomacy over the crisis in Syria and what role, if any, Iran can play is looking increasingly like a boxing match between the heavyweight US and the veteran statesman Kofi Annan. When does the bell ring?

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, right, speaks with media during a joint press conference with International envoy Kofi Annan, left, after their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday. Annan said Tuesday that Iran must be 'part of the solution' to the crisis in its close ally Syria, and that Tehran has offered its support to end the conflict.

Punch and counterpunch, jab and parry, the combatants in the diplomatic boxing match over Syria are running up the points with no saving bell yet in earshot.

Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general turned special envoy on Syria, insists at a press conference in Tehran Tuesday that Iran “can play a positive role” and must be part of any international solution to Syria’s political crisis and deadly violence.

Six thousand miles away aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Jay Carney rolls his eyes, if only figuratively. “I don’t think anybody with a straight face could argue that Iran has had a positive impact on developments in Syria,” he says.

So goes the tiff the United States has been carrying on with Mr. Annan over the role Iran should play in international efforts to halt Syria’s collapse into civil war.

In this corner, the reigning (and only) superpower says that Iran, which supplies Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and what Washington describes as Mr. Assad’s “killing machine,” has no role to play.

Across the ring, the tall and dignified Annan – the global diplomat much of the world sees as a wise if not particularly powerful elder, though seen by many in the US as symbolizing an ineffectual and even cowardly UN – stands his ground and demands Iran’s presence at the table.

The gloves stay on, because, as is true in any boxing ring, the two need each other.

The US continues to support Annan’s moribund six-point peace plan as the only option for addressing the Syrian crisis (critics of US policy would say President Obama needs the Annan plan to hide behind in the absence of any American will to bring down Assad), and Annan knows no peace effort is going anywhere without the US. But the sparring continues.

Annan had already called it a “mistake” for the US to veto Iran’s presence at a meeting of the Security Council’s five permanent members and regional powers in Geneva last month. But he acquiesced when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton refused to back down, and the meeting – which delivered very little anyway – took place without Iran’s presence.

But Annan made it clear he had not changed his mind when he made Tehran his first stop after meeting with Assad in Damascus Monday. “My presence here proves that I believe Iran can play a positive role and should therefore be a part of the solution in the Syrian crisis,” he said Tuesday after meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

White House spokesman Carney was not the only US official to slap back. At the State Department, spokesman Patrick Ventrell swatted down Annan’s renewed call for Iran’s inclusion in any Syria plan as one might a persistent, annoying fly.

“If the Iranian regime wants to stop giving direct material support to the Syrian killing machine … we would welcome that,” he said, adding, “We’re not at that point yet.”

Did that “yet” suggest a crack in the door that up to now has barred Iran’s inclusion in any Syria diplomacy? After all, Russia has shifted and now suggests it is ready to stop supplying arms to Assad. But getting Tehran to give up on Assad would seem to be a much harder, if not impossible, nut to crack.

Which suggests we’ve not heard the last of the punch, counterpunch that Annan and Obama administration officials have going over Iran’s role in Syria.

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