U.N. Withdraws Invite to Iran to Attend Syria Talks

GENEVA (AP) -

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 after the opposition threatened to boycott.

With the invitation withdrawn, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group said it would attend the long-awaited peace talks in Switzerland.

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 The U.S. said the offer should be rescinded and the opposition threatened to skip the event entirely.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 threatened to scuttle the entire event.

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 roadmap 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 diplomatic effort to end the bloody conflict, which has morphed from peaceful protests to 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 — to establish a transitional government with full executive powers in Syria, which has been ruled by President Bashar Assad’s family since 1970.

Iran is Assad’s strongest regional ally and has supplied his government with advisers, money and materiel since the Syrian uprising began in 2011. The Islamic Republic’s allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hizbullah, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad’s forces.