Surprise Invitation Lands Syrian Peace Talks In Hot Water

Jan 20, 2014
Originally published on January 20, 2014 6:44 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. In less than 24 hours, the UN invited Iran an international peace conference on Syria and then withdrew the invitation after a day of furious negotiations. Iran is a key ally of the Syrian regime. The objections to Iran's participation came from many quarters, including the U.S. and Britain, also Saudi Arabia. Syria's political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, threatened to boycott the talks in Switzerland if Iran were to attend.

I'm joined now by NPR's Deborah Amos, who is in the Swiss city of Montreux, the site of the opening of the conference. And Deb, walk us through this u-turn. Ban Ki-moon was so adamant yesterday that Iran would be joining in the talks, and then one day later he says well, actually, no they're not.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: You know, the UN chief has been very outspoken about the need for Iran to participate. They are key players in this crisis. The Russians agree and they've pushed Ban Ki-moon to extend that invitation. He may have felt that he got assurances from Iran's foreign minister - he is part of the moderate wing in Iran - that his country was willing to abide by the ground rules for these negotiations. It's possible the Ban Ki-moon was waiting for a public endorsement from Tehran, but what happened instead is officials contradicted the foreign minister, including Iran's UN ambassador. No preconditions, they said. And so you heard Ban Ki-moon late in the day saying that he was disappointed. He was urgently considering his options, and finally dropped that invitation.

BLOCK: Yeah, saying that through his spokesman. So, reaction from the Syrian political opposition, which, as we say, had threatened to boycott the talks if Iran were at the table. What have they said now that that invitation has been withdrawn?

AMOS: A surprisingly quick response. They released a statement. They welcome the decision to rescind the invitation. They'd threatened to boycott. So this now opens the way for these talks to get underway here on Wednesday.

BLOCK: Deborah, the basis of these talks in Switzerland has to do with something called the Geneva communique. The U.S. ambassador at the UN, Samantha Power, referred to that today. Explain what that communique lays out and whether all the participants in Switzerland are going to be accepting that as a basis for the talks.

AMOS: This language was hammered out last year in a meeting in Geneva by a UN-backed group, and it outlines the agenda for negotiations. The reason there's been such a long delay is because the idea was to get everybody to sign on. You have to sign on to get an invitation. Even the Russians have signed on, although Moscow has asserted some ambiguity by saying they support their reading of the Geneva communique. Now, the Iranians didn't go that far. They had been demanding an invitation without preconditions. And the other party who has not bought on to this precondition is the Assad regime.

The president was very clear today that he wants to stand for elections when his term runs out this year. He repeated also that he has no intention of negotiating any kind of power-sharing agreement with the opposition. And so you can see why the opposition is wary about coming to these talks. He's been very strident about that. The Russians back him. Their position is that he really cannot leave office. He is a partner in these talks. He certainly has been a partner in taking apart his own chemical arsenal, so the Iranians have not signed on to this Geneva communique and neither has the Assad regime, but they will be at the table this week.

BLOCK: Talk about the U.S. role in all of this in trying to broker these talks and Secretary of State John Kerry, because it seems that if the two sides are this far apart over some very fundamental questions, it's hard to know where these talks might end up.

AMOS: Well there is not a lot of hope for any kind of breakthrough this week. It's more like a meet-and-greet. We are now three years into a conflict and to get the two sides just to sit for an hour face to face is an achievement. I think that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry believe that they dynamic of this face-to-face meeting could kick start a process, although the agenda following that meeting is really unclear on will they come back from meetings, will they meet somewhere else? Does this begin a long negotiations?

BLOCK: NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Swiss city of Montreux. That's where the Syria peace talks will be held this week. Deborah, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.