Excluded Iran says its role at talks on Syria will be missed

A militant is seen clashing with Syrian government forces in the Salaheddin neighborhood of Syria’s Aleppo on December 11, 2013.

TEHRAN — After Iran was invited to and then disinvited from a coming peace conference on Syria within the span of 24 hours, Iranian officials and commentators said on Tuesday that it was the attendees who would be missing out.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had issued the invitation to the meeting, scheduled to begin Wednesday in Geneva, after a phone call from Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Sunday. The semiofficial Fars news agency dismissed it as “a ridiculous comedy play written by Western scenarists,” and a member of Parliament called it “a plot” to trick Tehran into dropping its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The invitation angered Syrian opposition groups and American officials, who quickly reiterated their position that Iran would have to accept the goal of the conference: the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, something the Iranians have long opposed.

One expert said that without Iran, the conference would fail. “The U.S. knows very well that if ever the day comes that Bashar al-Assad needs to go quietly, Iran is the only country capable of achieving that,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, an Iranian journalist who specializes in Arab affairs.

Mr. Zarif blamed Mr. Ban for the embarrassing reversal, saying the secretary general had bowed to foreign pressure. “It is regretful that Mr. Ban does not have the courage to provide the real reasons behind the withdrawal,” Mr. Zarif said on Tuesday, according to the Iranian Student News Agency. “This behavior is beneath the dignity of a U.N. secretary general.”

Iran likes to envision itself as an important regional player, capable of exercising either hard power or diplomacy to achieve its objectives. But experts say the struggle over the invitation illustrates how far the nation still has to travel, at least diplomatically, to realize that ambition.

Since coming to power in August, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, a moderate, has tried to restructure the country’s image abroad. But Tehran remains on opposing sides of numerous issues with the United States: It supports the Syrian government and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, while bitterly opposing Washington’s main allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have made some strides, particularly by brokering the first nuclear deal in over a decade. Mr. Rouhani will travel this week to Davos, Switzerland, where he is scheduled to address the World Economic Forum and highlight business opportunities in Iran.

Amid the confusion over the invitation to the conference on Syria, Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was ready to send a deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian.

Mr. Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s top diplomat on Syria and a fluent Arabic speaker, represented Iran last week during a United Nations fund-raising meeting for Syria, held in Kuwait. Secretary of State John Kerry was also present.

Iran has supported Mr. Assad with money, military equipment and advisers — and, some rebel leaders say, fighters — while allowing Hezbollah to step in and help the Syrian president at a critical juncture in the conflict.

Mr. Ban’s withdrawal of Iran’s invitation to the first stage of the peace conference, in which 30 countries are participating, undermines Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach, analysts in Tehran said.

“It is clear the president and Foreign Minister Zarif are disappointed with the position the U.S. has taken,” said Amir Mohebbian, a political analyst who is often briefed by Iran’s highest leaders. Domestically, he said, hard-line opponents of Mr. Rouhani’s government will point to the episode as evidence that Washington is not to be trusted. “They will say, ‘See, it is better to approach America from a position of power, so they will respect us more,’ ” Mr. Mohebbian said. “ ‘Now we are insulted instead.’ ”

For now, at least, the tensions surrounding the conference on Syria do not seem to have hindered the nuclear deal, which went into effect on Monday.

“The nuclear process is continuing,” Mr. Mohebbian said. “But what happened yesterday has negatively influenced our leadership.”

Mr. Mohebbian said Iran could now be expected to make sure it secured an even stronger hand in Syria. “This plays into the hands of those opposing diplomacy,” he said.

By The New York Times

The Iran Project is not responsible for the content of quoted articles.