UN chief makes last-minute bid to save peace talks
Ban Ki-Moon, UN secretary-general, was trying to save the Syrian peace talks from collapsing before they began last night after an 11th hour attempt to bring Iran "in from the cold".
Mr Ban offered a last-minute invitation to Iran, which is the main international sponsor of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, to attend the talks in Switzerland tomorrow.
But the offer came as a shock to the opposition, which had been persuaded to drop its reluctance to attend only on Saturday night.
It issued an immediate ultimatum that it would drop out if Iran did not immediately promise to withdraw its forces from Syria and agree to the formation of a transitional government, as agreed in a previous round of talks in Geneva in June 2012.
By last night, when the ultimatum expired, Iran had still refused to do so.
Iran "in no way accepts the Geneva 1 statement and if the Geneva II conference is based on legitimising the accords of Geneva 1, Iran will not view it as a legitimate conference," said Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign affairs adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The move caught the Western allies as well as the opposition by surprise, and they demanded a clarification by Tehran. "Iran must now clarify that they accept the basis of the secretary-general's invitation," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said it made no sense for Iran to attend the talks without accepting their mandate. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, also demanded an "explicit statement".
Iran's refusal to do so in turn came as a shock to Mr Ban, who was left last night "considering his options", according to his spokesman.
Hopes were already low for the outcome of the talks, and were lowered still further by an interview given by Mr Assad. He said he was still likely to seek another term as president, and described the idea that the coalition might be granted seats as ministers in a transitional government as a "good joke".