U.S. officials: Iran not eligible for Syria peace conference

October 2012 file photo shows Syrian youth holding child wounded by Syrian Army shelling near Dar al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria


WASHINGTON -- Senior U.S. officials say Iran has still not met the criteria to participate in an upcoming international conference aimed at ending the crippling civil war in Syria and its invitation to attend should be withdrawn unless it fully and publicly endorses the aims of the meeting.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, the officials said public statements from Iran about the conference, known as Geneva II, fall "well short" of what is required for Tehran's participation. They said that the United Nations must rescind the invitation unless that changes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name. But, their comments tracked with a statement the State Department issued on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Syria's main Western-backed opposition group said Iran must commit publicly by 7 p.m. GMT to withdraw its "troops and militias" from Syria and abide by a 2012 transitional roadmap, or else the U.N. should withdraw its invitation for Tehran to take part in a peace conference.  The Syrian National Coalition says if those conditions are not met by the Monday deadline, then it will not attend the peace conference that is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that one U.S. official - speaking from the Middle East - said that the situation is "fluid" and indicated that difficult conversations are taking place between the U.N. in New York and the Obama Administration regarding Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's decision to invite Iran.

The invitation came after the U.N. chief said he had received assurances from Iran that it accepted the premise of the talks - to establish a transitional government for Syria, which has been led by the Assad dynasty since 1970.

Iran said on Monday it had accepted the invitation, the student news agency ISNA reported.

The peace talks are intended to bring together for the first time representatives of President Bashar Assad's government and members of the Western-backed opposition that is trying to overthrow him. 

Diplomats and political leaders acknowledge that a quick end is unlikely for a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people and touched off the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. The battle lines have been largely frozen since early 2013, and the Syrian National Coalition has little sway or respect within Syria's rebellion. 

But the U.N.-hosted peace talks in Geneva and Montreux this week had raised hopes of at least getting the two sides to talk - expectations that were called into question on Monday. 

Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, said the opposition is "suspending" its participation because an invitation was extended to Iran. 

Ban said he had issued the invitation to Iran after "speaking at length in recent days" with Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, who had "pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux."

The aim of the conference, dubbed Geneva 2, is to agree on a roadmap for Syria based on one adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes the creation of a transitional government and eventual elections. 

Iran is Assad's strongest regional ally, offering billions of dollars in credit since the crisis began in March 2011. The United States, Saudi Arabia and several countries in the Persian Gulf suspect Tehran is also shipping him weapons. 

Invitations to the one-day meeting of foreign ministers at a Montreux hotel had been subject to approval by the initiating states, Russia and the United States, but the two countries had been at an impasse over Iran. 

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Iran must agree to the road map adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in Geneva in June 2012, calling for the creation of a transitional Syrian government with full executive powers. 

She said the U.N. invitation "must be rescinded" if Iran does not fully and publicly accept that plan. France's Foreign Ministry on Monday also called on Iran to accept the 2012 road map "openly." 

Ramadan, speaking by phone from Istanbul, said the opposition has said before that attending a peace conference that includes Iran was out of the question. 

"We consider Iran a country that is invading Syria and sending militias, whether it's Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah," he said. 

In 2012, the chief commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the unit had high-level advisers in Syria but denied it has fighters there. More recently, however, analysts say that Iranian troops and commanders have taken on a more direct role in the conflict. 

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters openly joined the war in Syria last year fighting along with Assad's forces. 

It remained unclear how definitive the Syrian opposition pullout was and what measures it might take to keep Iran away from the talks. 

"If the situation does not change, the Coalition will not be" at the talks this week, Ramadan said.