Policy: National Security

Iran debate underscores difficulties facing Syria peace effort

Iran,National Security,Syria,Middle East,Bloomberg News

The United Nations Monday rescinded its invitation for Iran to join this week’s peace talks on Syria in Switzerland in an attempt to sustain the effort to end a war that’s killed more than 100,000 people.

Iran “deeply disappointed” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by reneging on its private assurances that it supports the basis and goal of a 39-nation international peace conference scheduled to open Jan. 22 in Montreux, Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters Monday in New York.

Nesirky announced the withdrawal less than an hour after Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the U.N., said his government won’t attend the conference if it’s required to endorse the 2012 “Geneva I communique,” an international plan calling for a transitional government in Syria to replace President Bashar Assad, an Iranian ally.

The dispute over Iran’s attendance underscores the pessimism surrounding the talks to stop the civil war, which began in March 2011. The main Syrian opposition coalition, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia all oppose Iranian participation unless the Islamic Republic agrees to support efforts to assemble a transitional government to replace Assad, the Persian nation’s most important Arab ally.

Saudi Arabia said Iran is “not qualified” to attend the talks, according to a statement Monday from the official Saudi Press Agency. “It has troops fighting alongside regime forces” and hasn’t declared its support for the transitional government, according to the statement, which cited an unnamed official. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Ban over the weekend to emphasize the U.S. view that Iran must endorse the communique, the officials said.

Russia’s argument

Russia, China and others argue that the search for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict will be doomed if it doesn’t include Iran, a major supplier of Syria’s weapons that’s sent troops from its elite Quds Force to assist Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued Monday that holding the talks without Iran would be “profanation." Asked whether China supports Iran joining the talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing Monday it supports “regional countries” attending the Geneva meeting.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main and largely Sunni opposition group, Monday posted that it welcomed Ban’s decision to rescind the invitation to Iran and will attend the peace talks.

The coalition had threatened to forgo the conference, which would have sabotaged the first face-to-face meeting between the Syrian regime and the opposition and a chance to seek a political solution to the bloodiest conflict since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

‘Immoral’ decision

Soner Ahmed, a coalition spokesman, said in an interview that the U.N.’s last-minute decision to include Iran was “immoral, even in politics.”

The U.S. is “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,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an e-mailed statement Monday.

The diplomatic contretemps over Iran’s attendance began when Ban on Monday told reporters of the invitation to Iran. “Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said in New York. “Iran said that they are committed to play a very constructive and important and positive role.”

Ban said he and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had agreed that “the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers.”

Pledging cooperation

It was on that basis that Zarif “pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux,” Ban said.

Jan Techau, director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Ban took a “big risk” by inviting Iran. “To get results, Iran has to be part of the talks,” Techau said. “Still, you could probably have played this more smartly.”

The dispute underscores how Syria, where Assad’s minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is now a battlefield in the 1,382-year-old schism between the religion’s two largest denominations and the escalating animosity between two of the world’s major oil producers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Hopes for a peaceful solution have dimmed further in recent months as Assad’s forces, backed by Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, which the U.S., the European Union and Israel consider a terrorist group, have regained some territory.

Sunni militants

Meanwhile, Sunni extremist groups, some of them affiliated with al Qaeda and the uprising in neighboring Iraq’s Anbar province, have assumed a larger military role, prompting Assad and his allies to say they’re fighting terrorism.

In an interview with the Agence France Presse news agency, Assad said losing the war would mean “chaos” across the Middle East. He also said there’s a “significant” chance he will seek another term in office, according to AFP.

Finally, coming on the same day that Iran began implementing an interim agreement to limit its nuclear program, the dispute over the Syria conference is another indicator of the difficulties of dealing with multiple issues with a nation seeking to shed more than three decades of international isolation.

One administration official Monday said Iranian officials may be hoping that their more forthcoming attitude in the nuclear negotiations so far may produce gains on other issues.

Another U.S. official Monday rejected that, telling reporters that the negotiations on Syria and Iran’s nuclear program are separate, and the U.S. still has concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism and its efforts to destabilize Lebanon, Bahrain and other countries in the region.

—With assistance from Leon Mangasarian in Berlin, Xin Zhou in Beijing, Gregory Viscusi in Paris and Terry Atlas and Zaid Sabah in Washington.

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