GENEVA – A last-minute U.N. invitation for Iran to join this week’s Syria peace talks threw the long-awaited Geneva conference into doubt Monday, forcing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rescind his offer under intense U.S. pressure after the opposition threatened to boycott.
With the invitation withdrawn, the main Western-backed opposition group said it would attend the talks aimed at ending Syria’s ruinous three-year civil war. The opposition said the conference should seek to establish a transitional government with full executive powers in which killers and criminals do not participate.
The surprise invitation, extended Sunday by the U.N. secretary-general, set off a flurry of diplomatic activity to salvage the talks. The U.S. said the offer should be rescinded, and the opposition threatened to skip the event entirely.
The conference is set to begin Wednesday in the Swiss luxury resort city of Montreux, with high-ranking delegations from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending. Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents – the first of the uprising – are to start Friday in Geneva.
The uproar over Iran’s invitation put the entire event at risk of being scuttled.
The Syrian National Coalition, which had voted late Saturday to attend after months of rancorous debate, issued an ultimatum, saying that Iran must commit publicly within hours to withdraw its troops and militias from Syria and abide by a 2012 road map to establish a transitional government. Otherwise, the group said, the U.N. should withdraw its invitation for Tehran to take part.
The confusion surrounding the Iranian invitation 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.
It is unclear what motivated Ban to issue the invitation, but it came hours after he said he had received assurances from Tehran that it accepted the premise of the talks.
Syria has been ruled by President Bashar Assad’s family since 1970, and Iran is Assad’s strongest regional ally, supplying advisers, money and materiel since the uprising began in 2011.
The last-minute invitation appeared to take the U.S. and its European allies by surprise. An Iranian statement said Iran had accepted the offer without preconditions.
Senior U.S. officials said Iran has not met the criteria to participate in the conference unless it fully and publicly endorses the aims of the meeting.
France, another strong supporter of the opposition coalition, took the same line, with the country’s U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, saying Iran must accept explicitly the terms of the roadmap.
In New York, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said both the U.S. and Russia were consulted about the Iran invitation, and he said that if the Syrian opposition boycotts the talks, that would be a big mistake.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted by the official IRNA news agency saying that Iran does not recognize the Geneva road map because it did not attend the conference that drafted it.
Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the Syrian opposition and a bitter regional rival of Tehran, also said Iran is not qualified to attend the conference but stopped short of threatening to boycott. 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.