- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

U.S. officials are heaping scorn on Iran’s inclusion in a Middle East “contact group” formed to discuss and resolve the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The Obama administration has dismissed Iran’s participation in the group — which includes Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — as counterproductive in helping to ease regional tensions between Sunni and Shiite factions that have heightened as a result of Syria’s civil strife.

Speaking on background Monday, a State Department official said that “if Iran wants to ease sectarian tensions, if it wants to play a helpful role, it can stop what it’s doing in Syria.”

Washington accused Tehran of funneling weapons to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran’s closest ally in the region. Last week, the U.S. warned Iraq not to allow Iran to cross its airspace with weapons shipments.

The situation has prompted some analysts to worry that the Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad and Tehran are squaring off against the Sunni-dominated government’s in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

It remains to be seen whether the contact group members will aim to snuff off such tensions out before they devolve into a wider standoff.

On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that U.S. officials monitoring the situation “just don’t see that Iran is a country that can play a helpful role in this at all.”

She asserted that an effort to establish a contact group during last month’s meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran involved in essentially “fell apart.”

“I would let those countries speak to why it fell apart, but I think it — from our perspective — it appeared to to have to do with the extreme differences of views among those particular countries,” she said.

Iran is doing all it can to support the Assad regime materially and with its forces, and is on an extreme side of that issue and playing an extremely unhelpful role as compared to a country like Turkey, which is making extraordinary sacrifices to handle and welcome and support the huge refugee flow, et cetera, that has resulted from this conflict,” Mrs. Nuland said.

An initial meeting of the contact group, founded by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, took place Monday in Cairo. An Iranian representative proposed expanding the group to include Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria and Venezuela, according to the Iran’s official FARS news agency.

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