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World powers dispute on Iran attending Syrian peace talks

January 20, 2014 at 7:00 PM EST
Ahead of a gathering of world powers in Geneva to negotiate an end to Syria's civil war, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon extended an offer for Iran to attend the talks. But when that country rejected a condition of attendance, the invitation was rescinded. Gwen Ifill reports on the diplomatic disarray that ensued.
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GWEN IFILL: Now the diplomatic struggle over the Syria peace talks.

The back-and-forth over the U.N.’s decision to invite Iran to participate continued all day, with the scheduled start of the talks less than 48 hours away.

In two days’ time, world powers will gather at this hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, to try to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war.

Yesterday, in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon extended an 11th-hour invitation to Iran.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Ban initially said Iran accepted the goal of a transitional government in Syria that would remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. Later, though, Iran insisted it will not accept preconditions for attending.

Hours after that, a spokesman for Ban made this announcement at the U.N.:

MARTIN NESIRKY, UN spokesman: The secretary-general is deeply disappointed by Iranian public statements today that are not at all consistent with that stated commitment. He continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the Geneva communique. Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, he has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation.

GWEN IFILL: The invitation had sparked a flurry of objections, starting at the U.N. with U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: As of this morning, Iran still has yet to demonstrate its willingness to explicitly and publicly subscribe to the full implementation of the Geneva communique. That is a minimum requirement for participation in this peace process.

GWEN IFILL: NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has been watching all of this in Montreux.

MARGARET WARNER: The State Department was incredibly frustrated by this last-minute development over the weekend. It really threw a monkey wrench into its carefully constructed plan to get the Syrian opposition to come to this conference, which only got settled Saturday night.

GWEN IFILL: Iran and its allied Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, have continued to send arms and fighters to support Assad. The Western-backed Syrian National Council, which had agreed to participate in the talks, has insisted that must change.

ANAS ABDAH, Syrian National Coalition (through interpreter): The National Coalition gives an ultimatum to Iran to give a public and clear commitment to withdraw its militias from Syrian territory, secondly, to announce their full adherence to the results of Geneva I and a pledge to play a constructive role in implementing the results of Geneva II.

GWEN IFILL: The Council reconfirmed its plan to attend the talks once the invitation to Iran was withdrawn. But Russia, a longtime ally of Syria’s, insisted Iran should be at the table.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): If there is no Iran in this list, then I think the peace talks will resemble a hypocrisy.

GWEN IFILL: On the streets of Tehran, Iranians said it’s only natural the Islamic republic be included.

MAN (through interpreter): Iran is a major player in Syria. Without Iran, the Geneva conference would be an unanswerable question. It would be too difficult.

MAN (through interpreter): Iran is a very important country in the Middle East. Iran must be there. And if Iran doesn’t take part, the meeting will be useless. Everybody will feel Iran’s influence.

GWEN IFILL: For Syrian refugees in the region, the latest turn of events and the prospects for peace have been met with skepticism.

MAN (through interpreter): They will not be able to achieve anything. As long as Russia, China, Iran, and the devil’s party are supporting Assad, nothing will happen. If the United States and the Arab nations do not support us, and if the Free Syrian Army doesn’t achieve victory, nothing will come out of Geneva.

GWEN IFILL: Assad himself weighed in with an interview broadcast today on Syrian state television. He made clear he is not stepping down, and accused others of interfering in an internal dispute.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, Syria (through interpreter): The Geneva conference must lead to clear results regarding the fight against terrorism in Syria, more specifically, putting pressure on the countries supporting terrorism in Syria by sending fighters, money to terrorists, sending weapons, namely, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

GWEN IFILL: As the diplomatic disarray unfolded, the fighting inside Syria continued. Ten people were killed today in a double bombing near the Turkish border.