Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, said Sunday that he had invited Iran to an international peace conference to end the war in Syria. The announcement drew immediate objections from U.S. officials, who suggested that Iran had not met all the conditions for attending and that the invitation might need to be withdrawn.
At the heart of the dispute is whether Iran has publicly accepted the terms of the talks, which begin Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland: to establish “by mutual consent” a transitional body to govern Syria. Ban said he had been privately assured that Iran understood those ground rules and had pledged to play “a positive and constructive role.”
The U.S. State Department appeared to have been caught off guard by Ban’s hastily organized news conference Sunday evening. It pointed out that Iran had actively aided the government of President Bashar Assad and failed to accept the terms agreed upon in Geneva in 2012, which are known as the Geneva communiqué.
“If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communiqué, the invitation must be rescinded,” said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman.
Iran had made no such public statement at the time of Ban’s news conference.
“The United States views the U.N. secretary-general’s invitation to Iran to attend the upcoming Geneva conference as conditioned on Iran’s explicit and public support for the full implementation of the Geneva communiqué, including the establishment of a transitional governing body by mutual consent with full executive authorities,” Psaki said in a statement. “We also remain deeply concerned about Iran’s contributions to the Assad regime’s brutal campaign against its own people, which has contributed to the growth of extremism and instability in the region.”
Ban took pains to note that Iran had accepted the terms of the talks. That would be a major turnaround, because Iran has long insisted that it will participate in talks only if there are no preconditions.
Still, Iran’s acceptance of the terms would not necessarily mean it accepted the principle that Assad must leave office. Iranian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Some 30 countries, including Saudi Arabia, a bitter rival of Iran, have been invited to what may be a largely ceremonial opening day of the peace talks. Two days later, Syria’s government and opposition delegations will move to Geneva to continue the deliberations, mediated by a U.N. special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Diplomats and Middle East analysts say that if there are any breakthroughs, they will take place in Geneva. The negotiations are not expected to yield major results, except perhaps to open up certain parts of Syria to the delivery of humanitarian aid, which has been long denied.
Iran’s participation has been the subject of intense diplomatic wrangling for several weeks. Ban and Brahimi have insisted that Iran, with its considerable influence over the Assad government, should be part of the negotiations. So has the Syrian government’s other major ally, Russia.
The United States has long been wary of Iran’s intentions. Tehran has been one of the Assad government’s staunchest political and military supporters, sending arms to Damascus and encouraging Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, to join the fight on the side of Assad.
As recently as last Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry complained that Iran was, effectively, a belligerent in the conflict.
“Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria,” Kerry said. “No other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are.”
Kerry repeated the longstanding U.S. position that Iran should not be invited unless it formally accepts the goal of establishing a post-Assad transitional government.
Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Iran’s presence “seems to widen the circle of regional involvement.” But Tabler also noted that Iran and the United States could be expected to hold diametrically opposed views as to whether Assad must give up power.
“Given that Iranian forces and their Shia militias are deployed on the ground backing up Assad, it means another Assad backer will be present at this meeting,” he said.
Syria’s political opposition tweeted that it would not attend unless Ban withdrew Iran’s invitation.
“The Syrian coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in Geneva 2 unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran’s invitation,” the tweet said, quoting Louay Safi, a coalition spokesman.
The ultimatum came just a day after the coalition, facing a boycott from a third of its members, had voted to send a delegation to the peace talks. The opposition has been under intense international pressure, including from the U.S. government, to participate.
Ban reported Sunday that Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had said his country supported the ground rules.
“He has assured me that, like all the other countries invited to the opening day discussions in Montreux, Iran understands that the basis of the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June, 2012, Geneva communiqué,” Ban said.
“Foreign Minister Zarif and I agreed that the goal of the negotiations is to establish by mutual consent a transitional governing body with full executive powers,” he added. “It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux.”