WASHINGTON -- Under intense pressure from the United States, the United Nations on Monday withdrew an invitation to Iran to attend the much-anticipated Syria peace conference, reversing a decision announced a day earlier.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose decision to invite Iran had threatened to unravel the Syria talks less than 48 hours before the scheduled start, issued a statement Monday rescinding the invitation. The United States had said it was surprised by the invitation because Iran had not agreed to conditions for the talks, to be held Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland.
Mr. Ban contended that he had been privately assured by the Iranians that they would respect the conditions. But in their public statements, officials in Tehran said Iran had been invited with no such conditions attached. "Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, he has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran's participation," Mr. Ban's spokesman said in the statement.
The invitation also angered the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival and a major backer of the Syrian insurgency, and they threatened to boycott the talks.
The United States' longstanding position has been that Iran, a major backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, must publicly endorse the mandate of the conference, which is outlined in a communique from a 2012 meeting in Geneva. That mandate says the conference's purpose is to negotiate the establishment of a transitional administration that would govern Syria by the "mutual consent" of Assad's government and the Syrian opposition.
"Since Iran has not publicly and fully endorsed the Geneva communique," a State Department official told reporters Monday, "we expect the invitation will be rescinded."
It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Ban's reversal had avoided a collapse in the plan for the talks.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said Monday that leaving Iran out of the talks would be an "unforgivable mistake." At a joint appearance with Norway's foreign minister, he said, "Negotiations involve sitting at the table not just with those who you like, but with those whose participation the solution depends on."
The United States and several of its allies have opposed Iran's presence at the conference in part because Iran has been a strong supporter of the Assad government, sending it arms and paramilitary fighters from its Quds force. Mr. Lavrov, in arguing for Iran's inclusion, noted that several other countries that directly backed one side in the conflict were participating.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, long has argued that Iran, as a major regional power, should be included in the talks. But he said last week that the decisions on whether to invite Iran had to be made by consensus among the United States, the United Nations and Russia.
For his part, Assad said once again that he would not share power with his adversaries or accept the creation of a transitional government. In an Agence France-Presse interview, he said the talks in Switzerland should focus on what he called "the war against terrorism" in his country. He described the idea of sharing power as "totally unrealistic," and said there was a "significant" likelihood that he would seek a new term as president in June.
While he has made such remarks before, the timing of his latest comments seemed to underscore the complexities facing negotiators in Switzerland, despite months of preliminary negotiations to bring the combatants to the table.
In the region's tangles of hostility, the invitation to Iran drew immediate objections from both the exiled political opposition to Assad and from Saudi Arabia, which is a key backer of the insurgency and the arch rival of Iran. Mr. Ban said Sunday that Iranian officials had pledged to play "a positive and constructive role," implying that Tehran had accepted that the negotiations were posited on the idea of a new political order in Syria. On Monday, however, the Iranian state news media quoted a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Tehran as saying, "We have always rejected any precondition for attending the Geneva II meeting on Syria."
Within hours of Mr. Ban's invitation to Iran, Syria's political opposition said it would not attend the peace conference unless the gesture was rescinded.
First Published January 20, 2014 11:40 PM