'The question is not whether this conference will fail but how it will fail.'
A last-minute decision by the United Nations to invite -- and then disinvite -- Iran to this week's widely-anticipated Syrian peace conference threatened to unravel the entire diplomatic effort on Monday. The invitation, delivered by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, exposed a rare fault line between Ban and Secretary of State John Kerry, two close allies who have been working together for months.
The diplomatic standoff began Sunday after Ban announced that he had extended a series of last-minute invitations to countries, including Iran, to attend the opening of the talks. "I believe the expanded international presence on that day will be an important and useful show of solidarity in advance of the hard work that the Syrian Government and opposition delegations will begin two days late in Geneva," Ban told reporters in New York.
The U.N. chief's decision appeared to catch Syrian opposition leaders by surprise. Louay Safi, a representative of the Syrian National Coalition, announced on Twitter late Sunday that the group would withdraw from the conference unless Ban disinvited Iran to the conference's opening ceremony on Wednesday. In less than 24 hours, Ban rescinded the invitation in an about-face that did little to breed confidence in the star-crossed diplomatic effort. "No one is happy with anyone else at this point" a senior U.N. official told Foreign Policy.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, struggled to fully explain the sequence of events that led to the botched Iran invitation. The U.N. official said the world body had consulted with Washington before reaching out to Tehran, and a senior U.S. official confirmed to FP that the two sides had talked. Still, the official said the administration has publicly and privately urged Ban to cancel the invitation unless Tehran fully endorsed the so-called Geneva Communique, a June 2012 document outlining a political transition in Syria.
"I would say that we've made our position quite clear on the Geneva II conference, which is that it is for countries that are firmly and clearly and publicly committed to implementing Geneva I and its agreement for a transitional governing body with full executive authority and so on," a senior administration official told reporters Monday. "And unless and until Iran meets that criterion, we don't think it has a role to play at Geneva II."
Iran, however, made clear that it would not endorse the communique aheado the talks. "The Islamic Republic of Iran does not accept any preconditions for its participation in Geneva II conference," a spokesperson for Iran's U.N. delegation said. "If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I communique, iran will not participate in Geneva II conference."
Even if the current crisis is resolved and the Syrian opposition can be persuaded to attend the meeting there is little reason for optimism. The Syrian opposition is deeply divided and exercises little control over many of the rebel forces on the ground in Syria, raising questions about its ability to enforce any decision to halt the fighting.
And then, of course, there are these basic disagreements about the conference's real goals. Small wonder, then, that few are predicting a significant breakthrough if and when the various sides of the conflict sit down for talks. After nearly eight months of repeatedly cancelled plans to resume negotiations just holding the conference has become an end in itself.
"The question is not whether this conference will fail but how it will fail," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University Center for International Cooperation, who said he feared the mediators would founder on the same issue that undercut the initial Geneva pact: the fate of President Assad in Syria's future. "This is like a deeply embarrassing family reunion for all concerned; you just have to get over it and hope that nobody behaves too badly."
The three hosts of the Syrian peace conference -- the United States, Russia, and the United Nations -- had agreed in advance that invitations to next week's meeting would only be issued if they agreed by consensus. The United Nations and Russia have long pressed Washington to invite Iran, arguing that its status as a key backer of the Syrian government made its presence in the talks vital. But the United States had refused, saying Iran would first have to endorse the conference's chief aim -- the establishment of a transitional government in Syria.
Ban said that he had granted Iran the invitation after Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had assured him that his government supported the key goals of the conference, including its call for a transitional government. "Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers," he said. "Therefore, as convenor and host of the conference, I have decided to issue an invitation to Iran to participate."
A misunderstanding between Ban and Zarif appears to be the source of the problem. Shortly after Iran received its invitation to Geneva, Iran's Foreign Ministry said it would attend the talks without preconditions -- a statement that infuriated the Syrian opposition. Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, is now telling reporters that Zarif and Ban did in fact agree on preconditions.
"The secretary-general was deeply disappointed by Iranian statements today that are not consistent with the assurances he received regarding Iranian support for the Geneva communiqué," Nesirky told reporters. "(Ban) is currently urgently considering his options in light of the disappointing reaction of some participants." Following that discussion, the U.N. announced that it had rescinded its invitation to Iran and that Tehran would not attend the talks.
It remains unclear if the U.S. simply miscalculated the response of the Syrian opposition. A week ago, Kerry hinted that it would be wrong to invite Iran because of its military support for Assad. "Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria," he said. "No other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are."
If that weren't bad enough, a range of other issues threaten to unravel the talks, including Syria's desire to rally the international community behind its own stated drive to eradicate international jihadists seeking to impose a harsh Islamic rule in Syria. This was delineated in a letter written by Syria's Foreign Minister Waleed Moellem, rejecting the U.N.'s blueprint for a political transition in Syria. "It remains as the priority to the Syrian people to continue to fight terrorism which undermines the existence of our people; to continue to drain the sources of terrorism," Moallem wrote in the letter. "We also demand the countries supporting terrorism to cease and refrain from funding, training, arming or harboring terrorist groups in harmony with the international law and the U.N. resolutions."
Given the range of obstacles facing the mere initiation of peace talks, hopes for a diplomatic resolution appear more distant than ever.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/ AFP / Getty Images