By Patrick J. McDonnell
BEIRUT: Bowing to intense pressure from Washington and its allies, the United Nations on Monday rescinded its invitation to Iran to participate in a long-awaited Syrian peace conference scheduled to begin Wednesday in Switzerland.
The move appeared to avert a dispute that could have derailed the conference, which has been some eight months in the making and is a major diplomatic initiative of the United States, Russia and the United Nations.
The world body’s reversal seemed to open the way for the major opposition group, the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, to attend the talks. The coalition threatened to pull out if the invitation remained open to Iran, a staunch backer of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The coalition is the major opposition bloc invited to the conference.
The confusion surrounding the surprise invitation to Iran underscored the tenuous nature of the diplomatic effort to end the bloody conflict, which has morphed from peaceful protests into a vicious civil war with outside powers backing rebels who are fighting not only the government but rival insurgents as well.
The U.N. announcement capped hours of uncertainty after Washington and its allies complained that Tehran had failed to endorse the conference’s underlying goal: the establishment of a transitional government in Syria by “mutual consent” of both parties at the peace table. That objective was laid out in the “Geneva communique,” a document hammered out at a U.N.-organized summit in June 2012.
Washington interprets the document as a guarantee that the peace process will lead to Assad stepping down from office, ending his family’s more than four decades of rule. The Syrian government and its Russian ally disagree and say there is no explicit guarantee that Assad must cede power.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply disappointed” that public comments from Iran on Monday did not back the stated aim of the conference, Martin Nesirky, a U.N. spokesman, told reporters in New York.
Since Iran has “chosen to remain outside that basic understanding,” the spokesman said, the U.N. chief had decided that the so-called Geneva II process would proceed without Iran’s presence.
In a statement, Iran’s U.N. mission said Tehran “does not accept any preconditions for its participation in the Geneva II conference” and made it clear that it would not publicly endorse the goal of a transitional government in Syria. Iran will stay away if its participation is predicated on accepting premises laid out in the earlier Geneva communique, Iran said.
Iranian observers viewed the U.N. decision to rescind Iran’s invitation as a matter of the world body succumbing to intense demands from Washington. “Mr. Ban Ki-moon does not drink water without getting permission from the United States and its allies,” said Nader Karimi Juni, an independent political analyst in Tehran.
The U.N. decision capped a day of confusion and uncertainty that began with Ban on Sunday publicly extending an invitation to Iran to join more than 30 nations expected to attend the conference, which is scheduled to kick off in the Swiss city of Montreux. The U.N. said Iranian officials had assured the international agency that Tehran concurred in the conference goals. U.S. officials and their allies immediately balked, demanding that Iran sign on explicitly to the objective of creating a transitional government in Damascus, the capital of Syria.
The incident was a major embarrassment for the secretary-general, a veteran diplomat known for his care and caution in crafting public statements. It was unclear how the misunderstanding came about, since U.N. officials said they were in touch with the State Department before the invitation to Iran was made public.
The U.S. has long objected to Iran’s participation in the Geneva II process, the first face-to-face meeting under international auspices between the Syrian government and the opposition during almost three years of conflict. The U.S. and the opposition accuse Tehran of arming and providing extensive military aid to Assad’s government, while encouraging Iran’s ally, Lebanese-based Hezbollah, to send militiamen to Syria to fight alongside his forces.
Russia and Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria, have called for Iran to participate as a major regional power with considerable influence on Assad. Iran regards Syria as a vital ally and has called the uprising in Syria a foreign-backed effort to break Tehran’s alliance with Damascus and Hezbollah.
While Iran has been excluded, several nations backing the Syrian rebels — including Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional archrival, and Turkey — are among the countries invited to the Geneva conference. The U.N. on Sunday also extended invitations to several nations with seemingly tenuous connections to the Syria crisis, including Australia, Luxembourg, Mexico and South Korea.
After Iran was dropped from the Geneva II guest list, the Obama administration issued a statement voicing its support for the move.
“We are hopeful that, in the wake of today’s announcement, all parties can now return to focus on the task at hand, which is bringing an end to the suffering of the Syrian people and beginning a process toward a long overdue political transition,” said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman.
The negotiations aim to broker a political resolution to a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people, displaced millions and put entire towns and neighborhoods under military siege in the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.