UN withdraws Iran's invite to Syria talks

The UN chief retracted the invitation following threats to boycott the conference.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. Picture: The United Nations.

UNITED NATIONS/ANKARA - UN chief Ban Ki-moon withdrew a last-minute invitation to Iran to attend peace talks on Syria on Monday after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott this week's conference if President Bashar al-Assad's main sponsor took part.

Ending nearly 24 hours of confusion that dismayed diplomats who have spent months cajoling Assad's opponents to negotiate, Ban's spokesman said Iran was no longer welcome at the initial day of talks at Montreux, Switzerland on Wednesday.

The opposition immediately withdrew its threat to stay away from the conference known as Geneva-2. But the uproar over Iran, which has provided Assad with money, arms and men, underlined the difficulties of negotiating an end to a bloody, three-year civil war that has divided the Middle East and world powers.

Ban, his spokesman said, made the invitation to Iran after Iranian officials assured him they supported the conclusion of a UN conference in 2012, known as Geneva-1, which called for a transitional administration to take over power in Syria - something neither Assad nor Tehran have been willing to embrace.

Throughout Monday Iranian officials made clear that they were not endorsing that conclusion as a basis for the talks.

"The secretary-general is deeply disappointed by Iranian public statements today that are not at all consistent with that stated commitment," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters at a briefing.

While rebels and their Western and Arab allies see the 2012 accord as obliging Assad to step down, the Syrian leader has support from Iran in rejecting that view.

Russia, too, though a participant in the 2012 accord and co-sponsor of this week's first direct peace negotiations, says outsiders should not force Assad out. Moscow has said Iran should be at the talks.

Syria's opposition National Coalition had said it would not take part if Iran did, threatening to wreck painstaking months of diplomatic effort in bringing representatives of the two sides to the table. It welcomed Ban's change of heart.

Expectations are low all round, but Western diplomats, some of whom had spoken of a "mess" and "disaster" after Ban's unexpected invitation to Iran late on Sunday, said the talks could now provide some start to easing a conflict that has killed over 130,000 Syrians and made millions refugees.

Washington had earlier called on the United Nations to rescind the invitation to Tehran.

ASSAD TO SEEK RE-ELECTION

The conference had already appeared highly unlikely to produce any major steps toward ending the war. Western and rebel demands that Assad end four decades of rule by his family seem less realistic now after a year that saw Assad's position improve both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.

His forces recovered ground, rebels turned against one another and Washington abandoned plans for air strikes, ending two years of speculation that the West might join the war against him as it did against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In an interview on Monday with news agency AFP, Assad declared that he was likely to run for re-election later this year, making clear that his removal was not up for discussion.

He ruled out accepting opposition figures as ministers in his government, saying that was "not realistic" and said the Swiss talks should aim to "fight terrorism" - his blanket term for his armed opponents.

A powerful alliance of Islamist rebel groups has denounced the Switzerland talks and refused to attend. Even securing the attendance of the main political opposition National Coalition was a fraught affair, with many groups voting not to go.

Western leaders who have been calling for Assad to leave power for three years have curbed their support for his opponents over the past year because of the rise of Islamists linked to al Qaeda in the rebel ranks.

The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which fought battles with other groups and controls the town of Raqqa, imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms in recent days, banning music and images of people.

No faction has the muscle to win a decisive victory on the ground. Rich Sunni Muslim Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are funding and arming the rebels, while Iran and its Lebanese Shi'ite allies Hezbollah back Assad. Violence is spreading into Iraq and Lebanon, and survival is becoming increasingly difficult for the millions of Syrians forced from their homes.

Syria is one of the biggest issues dividing Tehran from the West at a time when relations marked by decades of hostility have otherwise started to thaw with the election of comparatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran.

Global powers agreed in November to ease US and European Union sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear programme, and some sanctions were suspended on Monday, but the thaw has so far had little impact on Syria diplomacy.