The United States reacted sharply on Sunday night to a surprise decision by United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to invite Iran to a major peace conference on Syria, just two days before the summit is scheduled to begin in Geneva.
The invitation threw the very start of the summit into doubt, as Syrian opposition leaders threatened to pull out of the talks and the US demanded Ban rescind the offer to Iran, a staunch ally of embattled Syrian president Bashar Assad.
Iran promptly accepted the invitation to the Geneva II conference on Sunday night , after Ban asked Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to participate in the talks based on "extensive" private communications between the two men .
Ban said that, in those conversations, the Iranian diplomat had assured him that, " like all the other countries invited to the opening day discussions in Montreux, Iran understands that the basis of the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué, including the Action Plan."
But in a statement made public through Iran's state-run news agency, Iran explicitly rejected the prospect of endorsing the Geneva communiqué .
“If Ban Ki-moon's invitation is based on Iran accepting the Geneva I agreement," Ali Akbar Velayati , a senior Iranian official, said, "then it means setting preconditions and Iran will not accept any preconditions.”
The conference is scheduled for January 22, and was scheduled to include participation from the government of Assad as well as the organized opposition fighting for his ouster.
Syrian Coalition officials responded on social media Sunday night, announcing their intention to withdraw from the conference unless Ban took back the offer.
On a call with reporters Monday morning, a senior Obama administration official said that the United States had made its position on Iran's participation "quite clear" to the secretary-general on numerous occasions.
"Unless and until Iran meets that criteria, we don't believe it has any place at Geneva II," the official said.
A spokesperson for the secretary-general told reporters on Monday that Ban was “dismayed” by the recent developments regarding who would be participating in the fast-upcoming conference, and was especially disappointed by statements made by some “key participants.” Ban is now “urgently considering his options.”
“The secretary general is deeply disappointed by Iranian statements that are not consistent with the assurances he received from Iranian authorities supporting the Geneva communiqué,” Nesirky said, referring Velayati's remarks.
Nesirky would not elaborate on what the options were that Ban might be considering, but said that Ban had “emphasized to all parties that the invitation [to the summit] stated clearly that the purpose of the conference is the full implementation of the Geneva communiqué, and he expects all parties to unite on this basis.
“We have been in close contact with the Russian and American delegations today, and over the weeks and days before [Sunday’s announcement],” Nesirky added. He also emphasized that the secretary general’s announcement about Iran’s invitation to the conference was “not hasty.”
“Certainly I know that this could not have been a surprise to US authorities,” he said. “They were fully aware of the timing of the announcement.”
But late Sunday evening, the US responded in a statement by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki implying the US delegation had been taken by surprise.
"If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communiqué, the invitation must be rescinded," Psaki said. "This is something Iran has never done publicly and something we have long made clear is required."
Nesirky did not elaborate on who else might have been consulted regarding the decision to invite Iran, nor with whom Ban might be consulting regard what to do at this late stage in the game.
Meanwhile, Assad ruled out allowing opposition figures take ministerial positions in his government on Monday, saying peace talks in Switzerland should aim to "fight terrorism."
The Syrian leader brands opposition fighters seeking his removal from office as terrorists.
In an interview with news agency AFP, Assad said he would likely seek a new term in presidential elections this year, a statement certain to anger opposition figures who say the point of the talks should be to remove him from power.
"The Geneva conference must lead to clear results regarding the fight against terrorism ... That would be the most important result of the conference. Any political result that did not include the fight against terrorism would have no value," he said.
Assad ruled out the opposition National Coalition obtaining ministerial positions in a new government, calling this "totally unrealistic", and said he was likely to run for president again in elections scheduled for June.
"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," Assad said. "If there is public desire and a public opinion in favour of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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