BREAKING NEWS: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has withdrawn his invitation for Iran to participate in Syria peace talks, a spokesman said.
ORIGINAL STORY – Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to put the genie back in the bottle after the United Nations formally invited Iran to the next round of Syria peace talks, on the heels of Kerry floating the idea earlier this month. Kerry, in early January, suggested Iran could join the Geneva conference, but only if Tehran “publicly” accepts the premise that Bashar Assad must leave power. Absent that, he said, Iran could still play a role “from the sidelines.” However, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon went a big step further and invited Iran without such a public statement from its government. That invitation now imperils the talks, as Syria’s main Western-backed opposition threatened Monday to sit out the peace conference entirely unless the invitation is rescinded. The State Department is making the same demand. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Iran has never publicly backed a transitional government in Syria as she urged the U.N. to reconsider. “If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communiqué, the invitation must be rescinded,” she said in a statement on Sunday.
With Iran now flexing its regional influence — and accessing additional funding under an interim nuclear deal — the U.S. could struggle to keep Tehran at bay in talks over the fate of its close ally in Damascus. Speaking to reporters on Monday, senior U.S. officials also said public statements from Iran about the conference, known as Geneva II, fall “well short” of what is required for Tehran’s participation. The peace talks are intended to bring together for the first time representatives of Assad’s government and members of the Western-backed opposition that is trying to overthrow him. Diplomats and political leaders acknowledge that a quick end is unlikely for a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people and touched off the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. The battle lines have been largely frozen since early 2013, and the Syrian National Coalition has little sway or respect within Syria’s rebellion. But the U.N.-hosted peace talks in Geneva and Montreux this week had raised hopes of at least getting the two sides to talk — expectations that were called into question on Monday. Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, said the opposition is “suspending” its participation because the invitation was extended to Iran. Ramadan said that Coalition’s team in charge of logistics skipped their flight to Switzerland earlier Monday because of the invitation. He said U.S. and European officials are currently working to find an exit from the “crisis,” but that the Coalition would come out with the final decision later Monday because “time is running out.” Ban said he had issued the invitation to Iran after “speaking at length in recent days” with Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, who had “pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux.” In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Assad held a meeting with the official delegation that will head to the talks, telling them to “prevent any foreign intervention no matter what it is,” state TV said. The officials were quoted as saying that they were directed to “start a political dialogue as a first step toward an internal Syrian dialogue inside Syria.” The report said the nine-member delegation will be headed by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, with Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban and Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as deputy heads. Other officials would include Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Jaafari and head of the media office at the presidential palace Luna Chibil.
The aim of the conference, dubbed Geneva 2, is to agree on a roadmap for Syria based on one adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes the creation of a transitional government of national unity, with full executive powers, and eventual elections. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, was quoted Monday by the official IRNA news agency as saying that Iran will attend the Geneva 2 conference after it was invited, adding that it will not accept any preconditions. She did not elaborate. Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the Syrian opposition, said Iran should first approve the 2012 meeting in Geneva that calls for a transitional government for Syria. “Iran is not qualified to attend because it did not declare this (accepting Geneva 1) and has forces on the ground,” state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed official as saying. Iran is Assad’s strongest regional ally, offering billions of dollars in credit since the crisis began in March 2011. The United States, Saudi Arabia and several countries in the Persian Gulf suspect Tehran is also shipping him weapons. Fox News