Syrian opposition gives UN ultimatum on revoking Iran's peace talks invite

The UN announced Sunday that it had invited Iran to attend Syria peace talks in Geneva. The unexpected decision could scuttle the long-awaited meeting.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (c.) meets with the official delegation tasked with participating in the international conference on Syria, in this January 20, 2014 handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.

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The Syrian opposition has given the United Nations an ultimatum: Revoke Iran's invitation to the Syria peace talks this week, or they will boycott the talks.

Getting the Syrian opposition to the table was a tremendous challenge, and they only voted Saturday to attend the talks in Geneva, known as Geneva II. The opposition gave the UN a deadline of 2 p.m. today to take back Iran's invitation. If not met, the Syrian National Coalition has said it will not attend the talks, the first direct talks between the government and opposition.

“We cannot attend if Iran is there, and the coalition is united on this point,” coalition member Hadi al-Bahra said, according to the Washington Post.

Iran has been one of the Syrian regime's most crucial backers, and is believed to be offering support in the form of weapons, money, and even fighters on the ground. It is also a backer of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization that has openly sent thousands of fighters across the border to fight alongside regime forces.

But it will also be a crucial player in any lasting Syria agreement, many observers would argue.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Sunday that Iran had been invited to the talks after agreeing that the premise of the talks be the formation of a transitional government that would not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham said later that day that Iran will attend the conference without preconditions, an Iranian news agency reports.

Further exacerbating the disagreement, Mr. Assad said in a rare interview with Agence France-Presse that he expects to run for president again.

"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," he said of presidential elections in June.

If there is "public opinion in favour of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election."

"In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant."

(Full write-up of AFP interview here.)

The Syrian National Coalition, the main representative of the opposition, has been divided over whether to attend the talks for months, and the Washington Post reports that fewer than half of its members approved the decision. "The unexpected inclusion of Iran at the conference put those who had supported attending the conference 'in a very bad position,' " said coalition member Abdulrahman Haj, one of those who approved attendance. “They are very weak now," he added. 

The first opposition delegates were scheduled to leave for Geneva at 10 a.m. local time today, but postponed their departure, coalition secretary general Badr Jamous told Bloomberg Businessweek. 

It is unclear whether talks could go ahead without the coalition in attendance, according to the Post:

Diplomats have said there has been no discussion of how to proceed should the opposition boycott an event regarded as the only hope for a settlement to Syria’s devastating civil war.

The United States appeared as surprised as the Syrian Opposition Coalition by the United Nations’ announcement of the invitation to Iran, which came only three days before the conference is set to begin in the Swiss town of Montreux.

The State Department also said the invitation should be withdrawn unless Iran endorses the conference’s terms, which are spelled out in a communique known as Geneva 1 that was agreed by Russia and America in 2012.

“If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Anonymous US officials also came out vehemently against the invitation in an interview with the Associated Press today, saying that Iran has not met the criteria for participation.

Speaking to reporters in a conference call, the officials said public statements from Iran since it was invited to the conference by the United Nations on Sunday fall "well short" of what is required for Tehran's participation. They said that they expect the United Nations to reevaluate and reverse its decision unless Iran changes course. The officials declined to speculate as to what would happen if Iran does not meet the criteria and the invitation is not withdrawn. However, they said the United States would not see the point in holding the conference, known as Geneva II, unless all participants accepted its goals.

The officials said the UN had been told of the US position both privately and publicly and that Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken several times with UN chief Ban Ki-moon several times over the weekend.

The US officials told AP that Iran must accept the plan for a transitional government in Syria that would not include President Bashar al-Assad himself, and criticized Iran for taking an active role in the war by arming regime forces and sending Iranian forces to fight alongside them.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Iran's participation is essential, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports.

“Forty countries have been invited to the Geneva II talks … And if Iran is excluded from the list then the conference will resemble something profane,” he said. “Iran, of course, along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, is one of the countries interested in resolving the situation without further damaging the stability of this important region of the world.”

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