- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2013

Following this month’s breakthrough in talks on Iran’s disputed nuclear program, the U.S., Russia and other world powers are now discussing whether to invite representatives from the Islamic republic to an upcoming peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that U.S. and Russian officials have weighed whether to include Iran, and the matter “will continue to be discussed” when Washington, Moscow and a delegation representing the United Nations meet Dec. 20 to make preparations for the upcoming Syria conference, which is set for Jan. 22 in Geneva.

“No decisions have been made,” Ms. Psaki said, when asked whether representatives from the Iranian government, which has openly supported embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, will have a voice at the conference.

In addition to providing financial support and military support to Mr. Assad, Iran is believed to have ordered Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militia, to aid Syrian military forces in their effort to crush the rebel uprising in Syria over the past two years.

As result, regional analysts are prone to describing Syria’s conflict as a proxy war in which Iran and Russia are working together to support the Assad government and the Syrian military, while the U.S. and its allies in the region — specifically Saudi Arabia — are backing Syria’s opposition forces.

With such context as a backdrop, some analysts believe Iranian and Saudi participation may well be required for any peace talks to be successful.

There are fears, however, that giving Iran a voice at the talks will dangerously enhance its influence in the region and may lead to a deepening of tensions between Washington and Saudi Arabia — particularly since the Sunni Muslim kingdom has been bristling at the recent nuclear deal reached with Tehran.

Syria’s opposition, meanwhile, appears circumspect about the prospect of Iranian participation.

Last week, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition — the main Western-backed political opposition group — said he hoped the progress on the nuclear program “will provide impetus for a Syria deal.”

While coalition member Abdelbaset Sieda told The Associated Press that the “Iranian government must cut relations with the regime and leave the choice to the Syrian people,” his comments were notably softer than remarks made by some in the opposition who have taken a downright dismissive posture toward the upcoming peace conference.

The sentiment among many rebel fighters is that the recent nuclear deal could indirectly strengthen Mr. Assad’s hand in any peace talks, according to the AP, which cited Mahmoud Allouche, a rebel spokesman in central Syria, as saying: “The Geneva conference is an American-Iranian game that aims to boost Iran’s reach in the region.”

At the State Department on Monday, Ms. Psaki stressed that the U.S. had not yet decided whether Iran should be at the conference.

She noted that the Iranian government has not officially endorsed a “communique” adopted by the U.S., Russia and other world powers during a conference in June 2012. Adopting the document, which calls for a peaceful political transition to occur in Syria, is “a condition we feel is necessary,” should Iran seek to participate in the upcoming conference, Ms. Psaki said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said last week that if the United Nations invites Tehran to participate in the conference, Iran would accept.

“Participation of Iran in Geneva 2 is in our view an important contribution to the resolution of the problem,” Mr. Zarif said on Iranian television, according to CBS. “We have said all along that if Iran is invited, we will participate without any preconditions.”



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