GENEVA – A last-minute U.N. invitation for Iran to join this week’s Syria peace talks threw the long-awaited Geneva conference into doubt Monday, forcing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rescind his offer under intense U.S. pressure after the opposition threatened to boycott.
With the invitation withdrawn, the main Western-backed opposition group said it would attend the talks aimed at ending Syria’s ruinous three-year civil war. The opposition said the conference should seek to establish a transitional government with full executive powers “in which killers and criminals do not participate.”
The surprise invitation, extended Sunday by the U.N. secretary-general, set off a flurry of diplomatic activity to salvage the talks. The U.S. said the offer should be rescinded, and the opposition threatened to skip the event entirely.
The conference is set to begin Wednesday in the Swiss luxury resort city of Montreux, with high-ranking delegations from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending. Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents – the first of the uprising – are to start Friday in Geneva.
The uproar over Iran’s invitation put the entire event at risk of being scuttled.
The Syrian National Coalition, which had voted late Saturday to attend after months of rancorous debate, issued an ultimatum, saying that Iran must commit publicly within hours to withdraw its “troops and militias” from Syria and abide by a 2012 road map to establish a transitional government. Otherwise, the group said, the U.N. should withdraw its invitation for Tehran to take part.
The confusion surrounding the Iranian invitation underscored the tenuous nature of the diplomatic effort to end the bloody conflict, which has morphed from peaceful protests into a vicious civil war with outside powers backing rebels who are fighting not only the government but rival insurgents as well.
It is not clear what exactly motivated Ban to issue the invitation, but it came hours after he said he had received assurances from Tehran that it accepted the premise of the talks.
Syria has been ruled by President Bashar Assad’s family since 1970, and Iran is Assad’s strongest regional ally, supplying his government with advisers, money and materiel since the uprising began in 2011. The Islamic republic’s allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad’s forces.
The last-minute invitation appeared to take the U.S. and its European allies by surprise. An Iranian statement said Iran had accepted the offer without “any preconditions.”
Ban said he was “deeply disappointed” by Iran’s statements Monday.