U.N. Rescinds Invite to Iran On Syria Talks as U.S. Balks

By Jay Solomon in Washington, Joe Lauria in New York and Farnaz Fassihi in Beirut

Jan. 20, 2014

The United Nations, under intense pressure from the U.S. and other countries, withdrew an invitation to Iran to participate in a Syria peace conference this week, a diplomatic bungle that muddied international efforts to end the civil war.

The bruising international face-off over Iran's participation came just two days before world powers gather in Switzerland for a long-awaited conference aimed at finding a way out of the nearly three-year conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Beside calling attention to international friction over Syria, the political discord exposed challenges the U.S. is facing as its pursues a rapprochement with Tehran's hard-line Islamic leadership.

Iran is the main military and financial supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Even as the U.S. pushed back on Iran's participation in the Syria talks, Iran took concrete steps Monday, verified by U.N. nuclear inspectors, to rein in its nuclear program in line with an interim agreement with the U.S. and other global powers reached in November.

Senior U.S. officials on Monday said they were committed to keeping negotiations over Iran's nuclear program apart from efforts to end Tehran's support for Mr. Assad's government.

"The discussions of whether Iran should be invited...are entirely a separate issue from whether and how we are moving forward on stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program," said an American diplomat. "That's what today's [nuclear] agreement is about, and that's what we're going to stay focused on even as...we deal with other aspects of Iranian foreign policy."

U.S. and U.N. officials, meanwhile, struggled to explain how such a public-relations gaffe over Syria could have occurred just days before the already rocky opening of the talks.

U.S. officials voiced surprise Sunday when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hastily assembled a news conference to announce that he had extended an invitation to Tehran.

He said he made the decision following extensive discussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who he said had signed on to the objective of the Swiss meetings--establishing the process to create a transitional government to replace Mr. Assad.

Obama administration officials voiced immediate skepticism Sunday night over prospects that Iran essentially had agreed to cut off its long-term patronage to the regime. But they said they would wait to see if Iran publicly committed to such a position on Monday.

On the contrary, Iran's Foreign Ministry said Mr. Zarif would only attend the meetings if no "preconditions" were attached.

The State Department subsequently said Monday it expected Mr. Ban to rescind his invitation to Tehran, which Mr. Ban's spokesman did later in the day in another hastily arranged news conference.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State John Kerry was insistent in discussions over the weekend with Mr. Ban that no invitation to Iran should be extended without its commitment to the stated aims of the Syria conference.

U.N. officials countered that the Obama administration had been kept completely in the loop on the secretary-general's discussions with Mr. Zarif.

"This could not be a surprise to the U.S., and they were fully aware of the timing of the announcement," said Mr. Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky.

Mr. Ban's invitation to Iran risked scuttling the conference in Switzerland.

The main opposition umbrella group quickly announced on Monday morning that it would boycott the conference if Iran were allowed to attend.

The group accuses Tehran of being virtually the only reason Mr. Assad has remained in power because it has provided extensive arms, cash and fighters.

An opposition boycott would have been a major slap to the U.S., which has spent months trying to persuade the opposition to go to Switzerland. The group only decided at the last minute that it would attend, splitting with rebels on the ground inside Syria who opposed the talks.

Saudi Arabia, the main financial supporter of the armed Syrian opposition, also said it would back out from attending the talks if Iran attended. Riyadh said no countries could attend such talks if they were sending their own fighters into the conflict.

U.S. officials also bristled on Monday morning over the idea of Iran attending. They described a rogue Iranian regime in ways very different from how American diplomats have depicted their Iranian counterparts taking part in the nuclear negotiations.

"They are actually escalating problems on the ground. They have sent in their own uniformed military personnel, Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces," said another senior U.S. official working on Syria. "They are doing nothing to de-escalate tensions and sectarian tensions in particular."

Syria's main opposition groups and Saudi Arabia quickly announced that they would attend the Swiss talks once the U.N. rescinded its invitation to Iran. Iran, however, indicated it would remain a thorn in the side of the international community as it continues to seek an end to the civil war.

"The Islamic Republic doesn't consider the Geneva II conference legitimate if it hinges on accepting the terms of Geneva I," said Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign-policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "We don't accept Geneva I under any circumstances." The Geneva I conference in 2012 set the objective for the coming round to create a transitional government in Syria.

Mr. Kerry and other world diplomats will arrive Tuesday in Montreux, near Geneva, for ministerial meetings that kick off the conference the following day. Meetings between the opposition and representatives of the Assad regime begin on Thursday in Geneva.

Mideast diplomats and experts have said a solution to end the Syrian fighting is unattainable without Iranian buy-in, a position Tehran reinforced on Monday. But U.S. officials said the start of the diplomatic process on Syria offers the opportunity to show Syrians that there is a future without Mr. Assad and his family.

"If this conference provides an impetus to finding a way forward whereby Syrians understand that the issue is not the entire state of Syria, the issue is a ruling family...I think it is possible with persistence to drive that point home and isolate a brutal ruling family," said the senior U.S. official working on Syria.

U.S. diplomats arriving in Geneva on Tuesday will also begin discussions with global powers--made up of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany--to find a final agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

As the talks get under way, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will travel to the Swiss city of Davos, just a few hours away, to try to woo foreign investment at the World Economic Forum.

U.S. officials voiced confidence on Monday that Tehran won't secure such investment until it reaches the final nuclear deal with the international diplomatic bloc.

"Iran is not and won't be open for business until it reaches a comprehensive agreement with the international community that addresses all outstanding concerns," said an American official taking part in the negotiations.

U.S. officials said there was a possibility that Mr. Kerry will meet Mr. Rouhani in Davos.

--Laurence Norman in Brussels, Maria Abi-Habib in Beirut and Ahmed Al Omran in Dubai contributed to this article.

Write to Jay Solomon at, Joe Lauria at and Farnaz Fassihi at