U.N. disinvites Iran from attending Syria peace conference
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Bowing to intense pressure from Washington and its allies, the United Nations on Monday rescinded its invitation to Iran to participate in a long-awaited Syrian peace conference scheduled to begin Wednesday in Switzerland.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 about 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 al-Assad. The coalition is the major opposition bloc invited to the conference.
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: establishment of a transitional government in Syria by "mutual consent" of both parties. That objective was laid out in the "Geneva communique," 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's 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.
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, it said.
Iranian observers viewed the U.N. decision to rescind Iran's invitation as a matter of the world body's 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 begin in the Swiss city of Montreux.
The United Nations said Iranian officials had assured the international agency that Tehran concurred in the conference goals. U.S. officials and their allies 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 United States 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 United States 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.