Opposition to Iran’s involvement in the Syrian peace negotiations continues to mount, raising further doubts about the talks due to begin this week in Switzerland.
A U.S. State Department official on January 20 said Iran has not met the criteria to participate and that Washington expects the United Nations to withdraw the invitation to Tehran.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia, which is a leading backer of the Syrian rebels along with Washington, denounced Iran as "unqualified" to attend because it has refused to back the creation of a transitional government in Syria.
The U.S. and Saudi statements referred to a June 2012 international statement, backed by countries including Russia and the United States, that called for Syria’s warring parties to agree to a transitional government to help end the conflict.
Iran, which backs the Syrian government politically and militarily, has accepted the UN invitation but says it will not accept preconditions on its participation.
The Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition has threatened to boycott the talks unless Iran withdraws its military forces from Syria and publicly backs the creation of a transitional administration.
"Unless we get these two points clearly and unambiguously clarified by the Iranian side, we would like to ask UN Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] to withdraw the invitation that was forwarded to Iran," Anas Abdah, a member of the Syrian National Coalition's political committee, said. "Otherwise, we in the [Syrian] National Coalition will not be in a position to attend Geneva-2 conference and we hold the international community and the United Nations completely responsible for that."
The Swiss talks are aimed at bringing together, for the first time, representatives of the government of President Bashar al-Assad and members of the opposition that has been fighting to oust his regime.
Assad told the AFP news agency in an interview on January 20 that he expects to run for reelection next year.
Analysts say the statement appears to rule out any acceptance by Assad of an agreement that would see him leave power in favor of a transitional administration.
UN head Ban said he extended an invitation for Iran to attend the talks after he received assurances that Tehran accepted that the goal of the negotiations would be to establish a transitional government.
Ban said he had been assured by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif that Iran was prepared to play a "positive and constructive role."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also described Iran as a major player in the Syrian situation, and said Iran's exclusion would weaken any outcome of the Swiss meetings.
Like Iran, Russia has backed the Syrian regime throughout the conflict.
"I think the situation is unhealthy," Lavrov said. "From the very beginning we have underlined that it is necessary to invite to this conference all countries -- without any exclusion -- that influence the situation on the ground. And without any doubt Iran, like Saudi Arabia, like the Gulf countries, like Turkey, Egypt, or Iraq, is one of the countries that has a direct interest in resolving this situation without any additional damage to the stability of this most important region of the world."
In an interview broadcast on Syrian television, Assad accused foreign countries of "supporting terrorism" by backing the opposition with money and weapons.
Some 130,000 people are estimated to have been killed and millions of Syrians have been forced from their homes since the Syrian conflict began nearly three years ago.
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP