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Updated: Sun, 19 Jan 2014 22:08:05 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Iran invited to attend Syrian peace conference, UN says



A resident collects belongings amid damage caused by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad in the Al-Maysar neighborhood of Aleppo January 19, 2014. Hosam Katan/Reuters

A resident collects belongings amid damage caused by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad in the Al-Maysar neighborhood of Aleppo January 19, 2014. Hosam Katan/Reuters

The United Nations says Iran has been invited to attend a meeting of foreign ministers In Switzerland on Wednesday ahead of internationally brokered peace talks between Syria's warring factions.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Sunday afternoon that Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has pledged that his country "would play a positive and constructive role" in the meeting to be held in the Swiss city of Montreux.

Ban says Iran is among 10 additional countries invited to attend the Montreux meeting that precedes the talks scheduled to begin Friday between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's delegation and Syrian opposition groups at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Thirty other countries had already accepted invitations.

Syria's political opposition threatened to withdraw its attendance at the meeting, dubbed "Geneva 2," unless Ban retracts the invitation to Iran.

"The Syrian Coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in Geneva 2 unless Ban retracts Iran's invitation," it said in a Twitter post, quoting National Coalition spokesman Louay Safi.

Invitations to the one-day meeting of foreign ministers at a Montreux hotel had been subject to approval by the initiating states, Russia and the United States, but the two countries had been at an impasse over whether Iran, Assad's strongest ally, should attend.

U.S. 'deeply concerned'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had said he would welcome Iran's participation — but only if Tehran endorsed earlier diplomatic agreements that called for a transitional government in Syria that would be created by mutual consent among the Syrian factions.

Ban said that Zarif had assured him that Iran "understands that the basis of the talks" is the full implementation of the road map adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in Geneva in June 2012. That plan called for the creation of a transitional Syrian government with full executive powers.

"Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers," Ban said. "It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux."

But the State Department said it remains "deeply concerned" about Iran's support of Assad's regime, even after the UN extended the invitation to Iran.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Iran must agree to the principles established in the earlier peace conference. She said the UN invitation "must be rescinded" if Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique.

Ban said he believed that the expanded international presence in Montreux "will be an important and useful show of solidarity in advance of the hard work that the Syrian Government and opposition delegations will begin two days later in Geneva." He reiterated that he believes "Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis."

"After nearly three years of devastation, and after many months of discussions about the conference, it is now time for the Syrian parties, the region and the international community to unite behind a political solution based on the Geneva Communique," Ban said.

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