ISTANBUL -- Under strong U.S. pressure and a boycott threat from Syria’s exile opposition, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday rescinded his invitation to Iran to attend the start of a conference intended to end nearly three years of violence.
In a statement, Ban said he’d withdrawn the invitation to the opening session Wednesday at Montreux, Switzerland, because Iranian leaders failed to follow through on a promise to endorse the conference’s goal of naming a transitional government. Instead, in a series of statements distributed by the Iranian news agency IRNA, senior officials said they could not agree to that goal and would not participate in a conference that required them to.
“The secretary-general is deeply disappointed by Iranian public statements today that are not at all consistent with that stated commitment,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement. “Given that it has chosen to remain outside the basic understanding, he has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation.”
At issue was the basic aim of the conference as laid out in an agreement reached by the United States, Russia and other countries in June 2012. That agreement stipulated that negotiations would be held to establish a transitional government to write a new constitution and set elections. Members of that transitional government would be picked by “mutual consent” – a phrase the United States has said would eliminate the possibility of Assad taking part.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to be furious with Ban for extending the invitation in the absence of ironclad assurances from Iran that it would sign on to the earlier Geneva accord.
The dispute over Iran’s participation brought the entire conference to the brink of collapse. In a day of behind-the-scenes drama, Russia at one point threatened that it would not attend the talks and warned that the Syrian government would follow suit if Iran was not present, a source close to the diplomatic talks told McClatchy.
In the end, it was Ban who had to make an embarrassing retreat.
It appears that whatever assurances Ban received were later vetoed by other political actors in Iran. In a statement he made to reporters Sunday night, Ban said Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had told him that he understood that the goal of the talks was to set up a “transitional governing body with full executive powers.”
But in Tehran Monday, other officials said Iran would participate in the conference only if there were no preconditions.
If the invitation to Tehran is based “on accepting the Geneva I statement, it means a precondition, and Iran will not accept it,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran “in no way accepts the Geneva I statement, and if the Geneva II conference is based on legitimizing the accords of Geneva I, Iran will not view it as a legitimate conference,” he said.
Iran’s U.N. mission drove the point home in a statement Monday night.
Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee said Iran “does not accept any preconditions for its participation in the Geneva II conference.” And he added: “If the participation of Iran is conditioned on accepting the Geneva I communique, Iran will not participate in the Geneva II conference.”
Word of Ban’s invitation to Iran stunned the Syrian opposition, which immediately threatened to boycott the talks. It set two conditions: that Iran had to agree explicitly to withdraw all military forces aiding the Syrian regime and that the aim of the formal talks in Geneva starting Friday was to discuss a succession to the Assad regime.
The withdrawal of the invitation brought a rare moment of triumph for the opposition – four-tenths of whose members walked out at a weekend conference over the decision to attend the meeting in Montreux and the later negotiations in Geneva.
In a statement Monday evening, the group welcomed Ban’s decision and reaffirmed that it will participate in the talks.
It said the aim was “to achieve political transition, starting with the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers on all state institutions, including the army and the security and intelligence” and added that “killers and criminals” could not take part in the transition.
Strengthening the stance of the political opposition, moderate and Islamist fighting forces, including the Islamic Front umbrella group, said in a statement Monday that they “do not reject” the talks this week provided they are aimed to achieve the principal goals of the uprising against Assad.
These are: the release of prisoners, the toppling of the regime, the departure of all sectarian militias fighting with the regime and the free choice by Syrians of the future government of Syria, including if it is Islamist in character.
Ban’s decision also came as a big relief to the U.S. government. In a conversation with reporters in Washington, a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said Iran’s public statements had fallen “far short” of what the United States had publicly stated. “Iran has never endorsed the Geneva I communique. . . . It’s been asked many times, and it’s always refused to do it. And so we just do not see how it can get an invitation.”
With the withdrawal of the invitation to Iran, 30 countries are now expected at Wednesday’s opening session, which is expected to include speeches by several of the visiting diplomats. The conference will then adjourn and resume on Friday with direct negotiations between the Syrian delegations, moderated by U.N. Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. What role the delegations from the United State and Russia or other nations will play in those talks has yet to be spelled out.