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Geneva Peace Talks: Syria's opposition threatens to pull out over Iran
Monday January 20, 2014 11:25 PM, IINA

Syria's political opposition has threatened to pull out from international peace talks scheduled this week if an invitation made to Iran is not rescinded.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday that he had invited Tehran, President Bashar al-Assad's main backer, to attend the first day of talks on January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland, after it pledged to play a "positive and constructive role" if it was asked to participate, Al Jazeera reported.

This prompted Syria's main political opposition group in exile, the Istanbul-based National Coalition, to threaten to boycott the talks, dubbed Geneva II, less than 48 hours after they've signaled approval to participate.

"The Syrian Coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in Geneva II unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran's invitation," it said in a Twitter post quoting Louay Safi, National Coalition's spokesman.

Another senior National Coalition member, Anas al-Abdah, told Al Jazeera by phone the body was "surprised" by the invitation to Iran, saying: "It is illogical and we cannot in any way accept it."

Syrian opposition groups and the US, which accuse Iran of supporting Assad with manpower and arms during the three-year uprising, have long had reservations about the participation of Iran, although Ban and the UN special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, have long backed Iran's involvement.

The US suggested on Sunday it could support Iran's participation if it explicitly declares its support of a June 2012 plan for a political transition meaning Assad would have to step down.

"This is something Iran has never done publicly and something we have long made clear is required," Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

"If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded."

Earlier this year, the US said Iran might play a role on the sidelines of the Syria peace conference in Montreux, which Tehran turned down, saying being relegated to the sidelines was beneath its dignity.

About 130,000 people have been killed and a quarter of Syrians driven from their homes in the civil war.

Western and Gulf Arab states have been reluctant to support the idea of Iran participating at all because it has never backed the plan for a political transition in Syria.

However, Ban, who was speaking at the UN headquarters, said he had spoken at length with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, in recent days and that he believed Iran to be on board with the transition plan.

"He has assured me 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 communique," he said.

"It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux," Ban said, adding that he expected Iran would issue a statement soon in response to his invitation.

He also said he had invited on Sunday a total of 10 additional countries to attend on January 22 - the Vatican, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Korea and Iran.

He made clear that the full negotiations between the government and opposition would begin in earnest on January 24 in Geneva. The key players in the talks are Assad's government and opposition rebels.

The Islamic Front, an alliance of several fighting forces that represents a large portion of the rebels on the ground, said on Sunday it rejected the talks, further dampening hopes of success.

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