Iran's Invitation To Syria Peace Talks Causes Diplomatic Stir

Syrian opposition groups threatened to skip the talks on ending Syria's civil war after the United Nations invited Iran to attend. The U.S. is also trying to figure out if Iran would agree to terms calling for an end to the Assad regime. Renee Montagne talks to Rami Khouri, director of the Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

The United Nations has invited Iran to take part in peace talks intended to end the Syrian civil war. And that brought immediate objections from both the U.S. and the Syrian rebels. That's because Iran has been a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. says Iran must agree that the talks will lead to Assad stepping down. And the Syrian opposition - which had just agreed, under a lot of U.S. pressure, to attend the talks - said that if Iran is there, the opposition might stay away. The talks are supposed to start Wednesday in Switzerland.

We turn, as we often do, to Rami Khouri, for more. He's director of the Public Policy Institute at the American University in Beirut.

Good morning.

RAMI KHOURI: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: First of all, Ban Ki-moon said - and I'm quoting him - "Iran needs to be part of the solution." I think many people will agree with that. But why, precisely, is Iran so important?

KHOURI: Well, it's not just Ban Ki-moon. It's really the whole world, almost - with very few exceptions - notably, the American government, that says the Iranians should be in Geneva. And they're important, because they're the most significant supporter, funder, armer, backer, trainer and everything else of Syria. And if this is a discussion to find a way to make a political transition to some kind of resolution of the conflict in Syria, you've got to have the main parties who are the outside backers. I mean, that includes the Saudis, the Americans, the Russians and the Iranians.

MONTAGNE: The sticking point, though, with the Syrian opposition - and also with the U.S. - is whether Iran agrees that the conference needs to lead to a transitional government, meaning that Assad will eventually go. Has Iran agreed to that, in principle, that Assad needs to go?

KHOURI: No, Iran hasn't agreed to that, and it will not agree to that, a priori and publicly. And because that's not a decision that the Iranians necessarily make for themselves any more than the American can make these decisions from the other side. The whole point of Geneva is to get the key parties to this conflict to sit down and talk about: How do they chart a peaceful, political, diplomatic, humanitarian path away from this spiraling conflict which has really threatened the whole Middle East? And how do they move towards a political solution?

The assumption among most people is, I think, is that the Assad government has really lost credibility, cannot remain as it is governing the country after all this violence that it has inflicted, and therefore, will be part of a transition that will bring in some other kind of government. How that happens - and if it happens - is really for the people in Geneva to negotiate, and not for anybody to talk about ahead of time.

MONTAGNE: Can there be a transitional government with Assad still there?

KHOURI: If it's for a transitional period, probably, for a very short period. You can imagine a technical, logistical mechanism that starts the process of transition with, for instance, ceasefires, humanitarian corridors, refugee repatriation, reconstruction in some areas, and an evolution of executive authority that includes people from the government and from the opposition together, for instance, dealing with maybe food delivery, or something like that. So I think a transition is going to be gradual. And my own guess is it will see Assad step down, eventually.

MONTAGNE: Well, just, finally, is there any indication that the opposition will now pull out of these talks, now that it's been announced that Iran is involved? And if they do, can the talks go forward?

KHOURI: Oh, if the opposition pulls out, there won't be any talks, clearly. But I don't think the opposition is going to pull out. I think the opposition will be assured that Iran is invited to the Geneva talks on the basis of the mandate for those talks, which came out of the first Geneva conference in 2012. And that is to create a transitional governing body by mutual consent. You know, the phrase mutual consent is in that official statement, and that speaks a lot. That means you can't do anything without the opposition. You can't do anything without Assad. There's a whole range of groups inside Syria fighting Assad, and most of them are not probably going to be in Geneva. So there's already a limited reach and credibility to the opposition groups that will be in Syria, and it is in their interest to stay there and to negotiate to enhance their credibility.

MONTAGNE: Rami Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Thank you very much for joining us.

KHOURI: Thanks for having me.

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