Syria peace talks set to begin after UN withdraws invitation to Iran

Russia and Iran criticise UN chief Ban Ki-moon's decision to withdraw invitation given to Tehran

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 10:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 11:24pm

The Swiss city of Montreux is ready to host today's long-awaited peace talks on Syria's after the UN withdrew an invitation to Iran.

Russia and Iran criticised UN chief Ban Ki-moon's decision to withdraw an invitation given to Tehran as delegates began to arrive in Switzerland for the meeting that aims to end the Syrian civil war.

Iran was quick to respond, with Abbas Araqchi, the deputy foreign minister, telling state television there was little chance of peace without Tehran's involvement.

"It is clear that a comprehensive solution to the Syria issue will not be found when all influential parties are not involved in the process," Araqchi said.

Iraian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the invitation had been withdrawn "under pressure", adding that he had earlier made it clear to Ban that Tehran did not accept any preconditions to the talks.

The United States, which is organising the talks along with Russia and the UN, had said Iran could not attend unless it agreed to the principle of creating a transitional government set out in June 2012 peace talks in Geneva.

Moscow, another Assad ally, had pushed for Tehran to take part and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday it had been an error to withdraw the invitation.

"Of course this is a mistake," Lavrov told reporters.

But he also played down the development, saying it was "no disaster" and describing the peace talks as "largely ceremonial" and a "one-day event".

The world body's reversal on Monday seemed to open the way for the major opposition group, the US-backed Syrian National Coalition, to attend the talks. The coalition threatened to pull out if the invitation remained open to Iran, a backer of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The coalition is the major opposition bloc invited to the conference.

A … solution to the Syria issue will not be found when all parties are not involved

The UN decision capped a day of confusion and uncertainty that began with Ban on Sunday publicly extending an invitation to Iran to join more than 30 nations expected to attend the conference.

The UN said Iranian officials had assured the international agency that Tehran concurred in the conference's goals. US officials and their allies balked, demanding that Iran sign on to the objective of creating a transitional government in Damascus, the capital of Syria.

The incident was a major embarrassment for the secretary-general. It was unclear how the misunderstanding came about, since UN officials said they were in touch with the US State Department before the invitation to Iran was made public.

The US and the opposition accuse Tehran of arming and providing military aid to Assad's government, while encouraging Iran's ally, Lebanon-based Hezbollah, to send militiamen to Syria to fight alongside his forces.

Taking off before dawn in a bid to beat a winter storm bearing down on the US capital, Secretary of State John Kerry and his team warned the talks being hosted by Switzerland were just the start of a long and grinding process.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, McClatchy Tribune