- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2014

The Obama administration’s carrot-and-stick approach to Iran was on full display Monday, with the White House praising Tehran for progress in dismantling parts of its nuclear program — while also working successfully behind the scenes to get the Islamic republic disinvited from a Syrian peace conference.

The contrast between the two approaches, senior U.S. officials said, should temper the idea that a thaw in the overall relationship between the West and Tehran signals deeper Iranian participation in America’s wider diplomatic strategy for the Middle East.

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The U.S. still harbors significant mistrust for Tehran, Obama administration officials said, particularly with regard to Iranian involvement in Syria’s civil war and the Geneva II peace conference slated to commence Wednesday.

“We continue to have major concerns about various aspects of Iranian policy, including in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region, and we will remain focused on those issues and determined to confront them,” one senior Obama administration official said Monday during a background call with reporters.

“These are two separate tracks,” the official said. “The discussion of whether Iran should be invited to Geneva II [is] entirely a separate issue from whether and how we are making forward on stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

Furor over the prospect of Iranian influence in the region’s conflicts erupted in Washington on Sunday after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had invited Iran to participate in the Syria conference.

SEE ALSO: U.N. withdraws Iran invitation to Syria talks

Although the gathering has been organized largely by officials from the U.S. and Russia, it is technically being overseen by the United Nations. During recent weeks, there has been uncertainty over who would be invited and concerns have been raised about the possibility that rebels inside Syria might seek to boycott the conference.

Syrian President Bashar Assad will be represented at the conference. But the Syrian National Council, the main political arm of rebels who have spent nearly three years engaged in a bloody fight for Mr. Assad’s ouster, agreed only Friday to send an official delegation.

Major world powers backing opposite sides of the war also will be there, with the U.S. and its European and Middle East allies behind the anti-Assad opposition, and Russia behind Mr. Assad.

But the question of whether to include Iran, a subversive backer of forces loyal to Mr. Assad, has lingered to the eleventh hour.

Conditions for Iran

The Obama administration has long said it would tolerate Iranian participation only if Tehran made a public show of support for the Geneva Communique, a basic framework that the U.S., Russia and other international delegations crafted at a conference in Switzerland more than a year ago.

The document essentially called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria — a step many believe would foreshadow Mr. Assad’s removal from power.

Although some Iranian leaders have voiced support for a “political solution” to the Syrian war, they have not specifically endorsed the communique. That sent tempers flaring at the State Department when it became clear that the United Nations invited Iran to the conference anyway.

Iranian leaders accepted the invitation but, after a flurry of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the Obama administration Monday, the United Nations suddenly announced that the invitation had been rescinded.

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