- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2013

The State Department confirmed Friday that U.S. officials are open to the possibility of allowing Iran to participate in an upcoming peace conference on Syria, despite the Islamic Republic’s alleged support for the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy team has for months chastised Tehran, and recently accused it of fueling Syria’s already complex civil war by dispatching its Lebanon-based Shiite allies Hezbollah to carry out attacks in support of Syrian military forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

But when asked Friday whether such activities should preclude Iranian representatives from participating in a yet-to-be-scheduled peace conference in Geneva, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said, “we have not yet determined that.”

“We think it’s important to work with our partners to determine who should participate,” Mrs. Psaki said. “And our expectation is not that we’ll agree with everybody who is going to participate in the conference.”

She added the United Nations will make final determination of who gets added or cut from the invitation list for the peace conference.

U.S. officials face a similar dilemma with Russia, suggesting this week that Moscow’s ongoing delivery of sophisticated weaponry to the Assad government was something the international community will simply have to accept if it wants Russian officials to help with the conference.

While the administration has sought to downplay Russia’s declaration this week that it will deliver an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the Assad government, the news has outraged some of Washington’s key allies.

Military officials in Israel this week suggested they intend to bomb the system once it is confirmed to have arrived in Syria. And Germany’s foreign minister has suggested Russia’s actions are threatening to derail the upcoming conference.

“We are concerned about the latest reports and news about delivery of weapons to the regime of Assad,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after meeting with Mr. Kerry in Washington on Friday.

“I would like to make this absolutely clear,” he said, “we tell our Russian colleagues, ‘Don’t endanger the conference in Geneva.’

“The delivery of weapons to the Assad regime is totally wrong,” Mr. Westerwelle added.

The Obama administration has consistently criticized Russia for arming Mr. Assad, whose forces have aggressively cracked down on pro-democracy activists and rebel fighters during a 2-year conflict that the UN says has resulted in more than 80,000 deaths and well over a million refugees.

State Department officials this week suggested the Obama administration will not criticize Israeli if Israeli forces were to conduct bombing raids on the Russian missile systems in Syria.

But the White House’s self-described “two-track” posture toward Syria has also found Mr. Kerry working closely and privately with top Russian officials toward getting both Syria’s opposition forces, as well as those aligned with the Assad government to the negotiating table in Geneva.

“The reason that Russia plays such an important role here in our discussions and planning for the next conference is that they have supported the [Assad] regime in the past,” Mrs. Psaki said earlier this week. “They do have a relationship with the regime, and if we want to get both parties to the table, we need to sit down and discuss moving things forward, even with people we don’t agree on everything with.”

An online report in the Tehran Times this week said that a Foreign Ministry official had confirmed that Iran has been “verbally” invited to Geneva later this month, but is still deciding whether to participate.

“We have not received any written invitation yet,” Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told reporters in Tehran on Wednesday.

“After receiving a written invitation… we will decide on attending the conference,” Mr. Amir-Abdollahian said.



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