The Obama administration scrambled Monday to persuade the United Nations to withdraw an invitation to Iran to attend a long-awaited Syrian peace conference after the unexpected invite prompted a threat by the Syrian opposition to withdraw.
The conference, due to begin Wednesday in the Swiss town of Montreux, appeared on the brink of collapse as the United States said it had been taken by surprise by the invitation and was urging U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to rescind it.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has called Ban and will continue the lobbying effort Monday, U.S. officials said in Washington. They reiterated that the United States opposes Iranian participation even in the meeting of foreign ministers that will open the event unless Tehran endorses the original ground rules.
Iran’s latest statement refuting acceptance of the terms “falls far short of the bar,” one senior U.S. official said.
“Our position is very firm,” and Iran has repeatedly refused to meet the U.S. terms, another U.S. official said. “We just do not see how they can get an invitation.”
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Kerry’s participation in the scheduled conference, would not say whether Kerry would back out or advocate that the meeting be scrapped if the impasse continues.
Ban told reporters Sunday evening that Iran had been invited after it had agreed to accept that the premise of the peace talks is to pave the way for a transitional authority in Syria that would take power away from President Bashar al-Assad.
But an Iranian official said Iran had not agreed to the terms, and Assad further fueled the ire of the opposition by indicating in an interview that he has every intention of remaining in power.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, which had voted only the previous day to attend the peace talks after eight months of bitter debate, issued an ultimatum of 2 p.m. Eastern time for the United Nations to rescind the invitation. Otherwise, the opposition will not attend the event, intended to feature the first direct talks between the government and the opposition since the Syrian conflict erupted three years ago.
“We cannot attend if Iran is there, and the coalition is united on this point,” coalition member Hadi al-Bahra said.
The disputes exposed the depth of the divisions within the international community over the Syrian war, which has killed more than 100,000 people over the past three years. Assad’s chief backers, Russia and Iran, have never endorsed the view shared by the United States and its European and Arab allies that the conference should be intended to negotiate an end to Assad’s rule.
It remains unclear whether the long-awaited conference, which has been planned for months amid intensive international diplomacy, could go ahead without the participation of the opposition. Diplomats have said there has been no discussion of how to proceed should the opposition boycott an event regarded as the only hope for a settlement to Syria’s devastating civil war.
Coalition members said they were stunned by the U.N’s announcement just three days ahead of the conference, which forced some of those who had been planning to attend to cancel plane tickets. The State Department swiftly said the invitation should be withdrawn unless Iran endorses the conference’s terms, which are spelled out in a communique known as Geneva 1 that was agreed by Russia and America in 2012.
“If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communiqué, the invitation must be rescinded,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Iranian officials gave no indication that they had accepted it, however. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran accepted the invitation but reiterated Iran’s long-standing position that it would attend only if no preconditions were attached.
“As announced before, we do not accept any precondition to take part in Geneva conference II, and based on the official invitation participate in the talks without any precondition,” Afkham said.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in Iran’s parliament, told the parliament’s news agency that “Iran will take part in this conference without accepting Geneva 1’s framework.”
The coalition immediately announced it was suspending its decision to attend “unless Ban Ki-Moon retracts Iran’s invitation,” according to a tweet from its account.
The twist plunged the fractious opposition coalition back into disarray only hours after it had reached a decision to attend the talks.
Members huddled in meetings overnight to debate the twist as diplomats from around the world bombarded them with telephone calls urging them not to withdraw, coalition members said.
The decision to attend had been approved by fewer than half of the coalition’s members, and the unexpected inclusion of Iran at the conference put those who had supported attending the conference “in a very bad position,” said coalition member Abdulrahman Haj, who was among those who voted to go. “They are very weak now.”
“Iran is the biggest supporter of the regime, not only with weapons and money, but also fighters,” he added, referring to Iran’s support of the thousands of Shiite militiamen from Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Iran, who are fighting on behalf of Assad.
The United States also had objected to including Iran in the peace talks because of Iran’s role as one of Assad’s most important backers, and its refusal to accept that the purpose of the conference is to replace his regime.
In New York, Ban stressed that Tehran had only been invited after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had agreed to the terms of the conference.
“Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers,” Ban said.
Ban also noted that Iran will not be participating in the actual peace talks, which will take place Friday in Geneva between representatives of the regime and the opposition, and mediated by the United Nations. It will, however, attend the opening conference in Montreux on Wednesday, at which representatives of more than 30 nations will gather to express support for a negotiated settlement to Syria’s bloody civil war.
The Geneva 1 agreement was vague however on the fate of Assad, leaving it unclear whether the talks are intended to remove him or simply weaken his authority. Although the United States has repeatedly stressed that Assad must leave office, Russia has continued staunchly to support him, and the opposition fears that if Iran also attends the conference, it will serve only to reinforce his grip on power.
In an interview with the Agence France-Presse news agency, Assad made it clear that he does not intend to relinquish power and said he planned to stand for reelection this year.
“I will not hesitate for a second to run for election,” he said. “In short, we can say the chances for my candidacy are significant.”