WASHINGTON - Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said Thursday that Iran has told him it would accept the fall of Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad if the conflict-torn country holds elections.
Annan, who served until August as the UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria, renewed his call for a peaceful solution to the crisis and warned that foreign weapons were only fueling a conflict said to have claimed more than 34,000 lives.
Speaking on a visit to Washington, Annan said that he sensed support for a democratic solution in Syria when he visited Tehran in July and met with three top Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"They all had the same message when I pushed them -- that... we accept that Assad may have to go, but the Syrian people should be allowed to decide through elections, even if it's organized under UN authority," Annan said.
"One choice phrase they gave me is that 'democracy is a solution, democracy is the answer in Syria,'" Annan said at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
Annan said the Iranian leaders did not limit calls for democracy to Syria but also made clear they would push for a similar path in Bahrain, a US-allied monarchy that has put down protests against its Shiite majority.
Iran, which is led by Shiite clerics, is Assad's main regional ally and has criticized Western and Arab pressure on his regime, led by the Alawite sect. But Iran has denied US charges that it has shipped arms to Syria.
The United States has said that it is only providing non-lethal support to Syria's opposition but Sunni Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been widely reported to have sent weapons to rebels.
Annan denounced arms shipments, saying that Syria was "almost into a sectarian war" that could spread beyond the region.
"I have said in the past that Syria, unlike Libya, will not implode but is likely to explode -- and explode beyond its borders," Annan said.
"Some governments have made the calculation that the fastest way to end the conflict in Syria is to arm one side or the other to have total victory over the other side," he said.
"It's not going to happen. They're only going to get more people killed," he said.
Annan, who led the United Nations for an often turbulent 10 years starting in 1997, was visiting Washington as he promotes his memoir, "Interventions: A Life in War and Peace."