Middle East

U.N. withdraws Iran invitation to Geneva

Syrian Red Crescent workers evacuate children from the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of the Syrian capital Damascus on January 19, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations and Iran said Monday the Islamic Republic would not attend the Geneva II peace talks on Syria after a day of frantic diplomacy left the fate of the entire conference hanging in the balance.

In an unexpected last-minute move, the U.N. invited Iran to attend the talks due to begin Wednesday in Switzerland. The invite provoked a backlash from Washington and the Syrian opposition, who threatened to pull out.

However, by Monday evening a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters that Iran’s invitation to the peace conference had been officially withdrawn after Tehran declared it did not support the 2012 political transition deal, known as Geneva I, as the basis for talks.

“He [Ban] continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the Geneva communiqué,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, [Ban] has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation.”

Ban said earlier that Iran’s public statement that it did not support the Geneva I deal calling for a transitional government for Syria was “not consistent” with assurances he had been given by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Ban said his invitation was based on an assurance from Zarif that “Iran understands that the basis for the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué.”

However, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, also speaking Monday evening, said Iran would not take part if it was required to accept the 2012 deal.

“If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I communiqué, Iran will not participate in Geneva II conference,” Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee said in a statement.

Iran is the main foreign backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its presence has been one of the most contentious issues looming over the first talks to be attended by both the government and opponents.

The West and the Syrian opposition have long said Iran must be barred from the conference unless it first accepted an accord reached in Geneva in 2012 calling for a transitional government, which they see as a step toward unseating Assad.

Syria’s main political opposition in exile – the National Coalition, which agreed to attend Geneva II only two days ago – had said it would withdraw unless Ban revoked his invitation. However, the U.N. about-turn on Iran was directly followed by a statement from the coalition saying it would go to Montreux this week.

“We appreciate the United Nations and Ban Ki-moon’s understanding of our position. We think they have taken the right decision. Our participation is confirmed for 22 January,” Monzer Akbik, chief of staff of the president of the National Coalition told Reuters.

The United States welcomed the rescinding of the Iranian invite.

“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,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Earlier, U.S. officials scoffed at the notion that the Assad regime could organize free and fair elections in which he could run next year.

In an interview with AFP Sunday, Assad said there was a “significant chance” he would seek a new seven-year term in June.

Top U.S. officials, on a conference call with reporters, dismissed the idea as “ludicrous,” issuing a scathing denunciation of Assad.

“This is a guy who has used Scud rockets. This is a guy who’s used chemical weapons on several occasions, killing literally thousands of people. This is a guy who has surrounded cities and starved them,” said one senior State Department official, asking not to be named.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 21, 2014, on page 1.




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